House panel advances energy bills; Senate approval doubtful

The House Natural Resources Committee approved a suite of bills that aim to boost domestic energy development and ratchet up pressure on the Obama administration to open new areas to oil and gas drilling.

The measures, approved mostly along party lines, now head to the full House , setting up debates on U.S. energy policy against the backdrop of the peak summer driving season.

“These bills will unlock our American energy resources on federal lands and waters,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the panel chairman.

Committee Democrats derided the measures as political messaging bills that aren’t likely to go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The legislation advanced Wednesday included a bill sponsored by Hastings that would force the Interior Department to write a new plan for selling offshore oil and gas leases, with required auctions of territory near California, South Carolina and Virginia. The measure, approved on a 23-18 party-line vote, also would limit environmental reviews of the new lease sales, forcing federal regulators to study the implications of all three sale areas at once, rather than with area-specific studies.

Environmentalists testifying on Hastings’ offshore bill Tuesday said that approach could lead to a broad-brush review that paints over geological differences between the regions newly up for grabs.

Hastings’ bill also would expand revenue sharing — beyond a current program limited to four Gulf states beginning in 2017 — to allow coastal states to collect a portion of royalties sent to the federal government for offshore oil and gas leasing near their shores.

Republicans rejected a series of amendments to the bill, including a proposal from Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., that would have lifted a $75 million liability cap on what companies must pay for oil spills. The cap was widely criticized as inadequate after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Grijalva’s failed amendment also would have boosted civil penalties for offshore safety violations, which at a maximum of $40,000 per incident per day, have been described as a slap on the wrist for companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars daily just to rent a single rig.

“More than three years after the BP spill, it is well past time we take action to protect the workers and the people of the Gulf,” Grijalva said.

Another failed amendment effectively would have  blocked Exxon Mobil from winning federal drilling leases unless the company adopts a formal policy preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who sponsored the amendment, said that nearly 9 out of 10 Fortune 500 companies — including all major integrated oil companies except Exxon Mobil — have policies preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Lowenthal said it was “unacceptable” that Exxon Mobil offers those protections — as well as same-sex spousal benefits — “in foreign countries where it is mandated by law,” but drops them if once-covered employees move back to the United States.

The company has drawn fire for the policy, most recently during a shareholder meeting last month.

Hastings accused Lowenthal of offering the amendment for “a political agenda, rather than a policy agenda.”

Other measures approved Wednesday included: