Republicans aim to overturn Obama’s plan for Alaskan oil

House Republicans on Wednesday took one of the first steps toward overturning a new Obama administration plan for managing wildlife and oil development in the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

During a House subcommittee hearing on a bill to repeal the reserve management plan, Republicans insisted the administration’s blueprint tilts too heavily toward conservation by walling off energy development in roughly half of the reserve.

“The Obama administration appears determined, against the wishes of most Alaskans, to keep their energy resources off limits,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. who sponsored the repeal bill along with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Finalized by the Interior Department in February, the management plan would allow companies to hunt for oil and gas in 11.8 million acres. It also explicitly would allow pipelines to cross the reserve, considered crucial to connecting potential oil development in Arctic waters with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Read more: Oil and tradition try life together in far north Alaska

However oil companies have warned that the management plan could make it more difficult to place and build such pipelines, by potentially blocking the infrastructure through Teshekpuk Lake and at the most likely point for a Chukchi Sea pipeline to come ashore, Kasegaluk Lagoon. Navigating around those areas  could be difficult and more costly than going straight through them.

The Hastings-Young bill would force the Interior Department to scrap the record of decision that formalized the plan in February and go back to the drawing board.

Three other bills considered by a House Natural Resources subcommittee on Wednesday aim to open more federal territory for oil development and overhaul the way U.S. drilling leases are sold. Similar measures passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said the measures “will take great steps forward to promote domestic energy security, economic development and job creation.”

But Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., cast the exercise as futile, predicting that they would once again die in the Senate.

“What is the justification for doing these things, other than to give the energy interests a free ride?” Holt questioned. “The Republican bills would elevate speed over safety while opening huge swaths of public land” to energy development.

The casualty, Holt said, would be hunting, fishing and other activities allowed on federal lands, which would be relegated behind drilling.

One of the bills generally would force the Interior Department to process applications for permits to drill on federal land within 60 days, effectively deeming pending applications as approved if the deadline passes without action. The measure, sponsored by Lamborn, also would prevent the government from collecting the current $6,500 fee for processing those drilling permits until a decision is issued.

And it would impose a $5,000 fee for anyone seeking to protest Bureau of Land Management permitting decisions — a proposal that supporters said was key to dissuading a rash of lawsuits.

The acting deputy director of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, Jamie Connell, told lawmakers Wednesday the the legislation would impose “unreasonable timeframes” for processing those permits. Recent changes already have cut down on the number of permit protests, Connell said, suggesting that the $5,000 fee is not needed.

At least one measure considered Wednesday is relatively non-controversial; the bill would  allow the Interior Department to sell onshore oil and gas drilling leases via the Internet.

Sponsor Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, has said the legislation would modernize “an outdated and inefficient lease sale process that requires bidders to appear in person to purchase land leases.” The result is that some would-be buyers don’t participate, preventing prices from reaching their full potential.

Connell said the administration backs the bill and considers it a chance for the Bureau of Land Management “to expand upon its success” with a pilot project for Internet auctions. While the measure would set a quarterly schedule for onshore lease sales, the Interior Department is asking lawmakers to provide flexibility to hold those auctions more or less often in some cases.