Gasoline fears drive congressional energy agenda

WASHINGTON — A familiar scenario is playing out on Capitol Hill this week, as House Republicans seize on the summer driving season and fears about turmoil in Iraq driving up gasoline prices to advance a trio of oil and gas bills.

The measures — which would accelerate natural gas exports, make it easier to permit new border-crossing pipelines and open more areas to offshore drilling — are all likely to pass the Republican-controlled House but are not expected to get much action in the Democrat-led Senate.

GOP leaders have scheduled debate and floor votes on the three bills ahead of the July 4 holiday and a week-long congressional recess, employing a time-tested strategy for drawing attention to highly charged energy issues during peak driving months.

“Millions of vacationing families will be hitting the highways this summer, where, for the fourth year in a row, they’ll face gas prices above $3.50 a gallon,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. “Prices are already closing in on $4 a gallon, and the political upheaval in Iraq threatens to push them even higher.”

America’s abundant energy

The solution, Upton said in the Republicans’ weekly radio address, is energy policy “designed to make the most of America’s abundant energy supplies.”

Houston Democrat Gene Green has played a major role in shaping two of the three measures, both aimed at accelerating government reviews of energy projects.

Green was the leading Democratic force behind new, compromise language set to be proposed for the natural gas export bill, which would set a deadline for the Energy Department to decide on individual applications to widely sell the fossil fuel overseas.

30-day deadline

Under the compromise language Green and bill sponsor Cory Gardner, R-Colo., will offer on the House floor, the Energy Department would have 30 days to rule on applications to export liquefied natural gas to countries that are not U.S. free-trade partners. The timeline would begin after the bill is enacted or the required environmental reviews of the individual site and construction plans are completed.

A top Energy Department official told the Senate last week that regulators could meet a separately proposed 45-day deadline — but, of course, that doesn’t mean the decisions would end up being “yes.”

Supporters say the legislation is needed to accelerate a slow regulatory slog for proposed exports, despite recent Energy Department changes aimed at speeding up reviews for the most commercially mature projects.

But a coalition of manufacturers opposed to widespread exports said the bill is “harmful to the public interest of American consumers, manufacturers and the economy.”

Border-crossing pipelines

Green is also the lead Democratic co-sponsor of a separate bill on the House calendar this week that would streamline the review process for pipelines and power lines that cross U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.

The legislation, which Green introduced with Upton, would eliminate the existing presidential permits required for such border-crossing pipelines with new “certificates of crossing.” Under the bill, environmental assessments would still be required but the government would face a four-month deadline to complete the permit reviews, unless proposed construction were deemed outside the public interest of the U.S.

Although inspired by the six-year battle over Keystone XL, the Upton-Green bill would only apply to future proposals.

The third energy bill on the House agenda this week is a grab bag of proposals that passed the House already, including a measure that would force the federal government to offer at least a quarter of eligible public land for oil and gas leasing. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also would almost immediately allow offshore drilling off the South Carolina, Virginia and California coasts.

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