It is a 20-block trip from the Interior Department headquarters to the House Natural Resources Committee's Capitol Hill hearing rooms, and Secretary Ken Salazar may get to know it well.
Committee Republicans, hoping to hold the gavel next session, are planning to bring Salazar and other top department officials to their turf for a host of oversight hearings. In the past two years, Republicans have accused Interior of instituting a de facto moratorium on shallow and deepwater offshore drilling, conspiring to unilaterally block development on millions of acres of public lands by creating "secret monuments" and weakening national security by subjecting U.S. Border Patrol agents to overly onerous restrictions on Southwestern wilderness.
If Republicans control the committee, they hope to turn those accusations into hearings, and lots of them.
Leading the GOP charge is ranking Republican Doc Hastings of Washington. Hastings "sees oversight as an important role of the committee, and something he would certainly look at in the next Congress," said Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for Republicans' presumed choice for chairman. "I'm sure that some of the issues that we focused on in this session will be back in the next one."
In an interview with E&E Daily, Hastings pledged that his party -- whether Republicans win the House or not -- would continue to advocate an "all of the above" energy plan, including a push for oil and gas drilling, coal and uranium mining, biofuels, hydroelectric power and new exploration off Alaska's coastline.
Hastings is backed by a gang of subcommittee ranking members, each of whom has a bone to pick with the Obama team. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) -- ranking member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee -- has been fuming since Salazar canceled planned oil and gas lease sales in Utah in 2009.
Bishop, whose district is ranked by the Cook Political Report as the 13th most Republican in the country, has also accused Interior of planning to designate more than 10 million acres of federal land as new national monuments and bypassing Congress to do it. The administration has repeatedly promised to confer with Congress and local stakeholders before moving on any monuments, but Bishop has done his best to keep the issue in the news since his office uncovered an internal Interior document discussing possible new monuments in February.
Then there is Water and Power Subcommittee ranking member Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who is up in arms over restrictions on how much water farmers in his district can pump from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The pumping limits have been mandated by Endangered Species Act court decisions, and Interior officials say they are necessary to restore a critical ecosystem, but McClintock has repeatedly accused the department of putting "fish before families."
Other conservative hard-liners on the committee include Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Jason Chaffetz of Utah and 19-term Alaska veteran Don Young. Together, as part of the Bishop-led "Congressional Western Caucus," the Republicans have held a series of shadow hearings throughout the 111th Congress, most recently on the Obama administration's "War on Western Jobs."
Democrats eye drilling, mining reform
Democrats have an ambitious agenda of their own, albeit one tempered by the reality that they may no longer be the ones calling the shots.
"We'll either be working to hold the line or push it forward," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is chairman for the committee's public lands panel this session, told E&E Daily.
In the next session, Grijalva said he hoped to move legislation to prepare federal lands for climate change -- measures he said would be similar to those included in this session's House cap-and-trade bill. He also said he would work on changes to the 1872 Mining Law, which governs extraction or gold, copper, uranium and other hardrock minerals, and on new forestry measures.
Grijalva said he saw those initiatives as unlikely to go anywhere in a Republican-controlled committee.
"I hope we keep the chairmanships, because otherwise we'll be battling people who don't believe in climate change and see our public lands as for extraction only," he said.
GOP safe, while Dems face tough elections
Whether they take control or not, all committee Republicans -- save for retiring Rep. Henry Brown of South Carolina -- can expect to be back next session.
The Democrats should be so lucky.
Grijvalva himself is facing a tough challenge for his seat after Republicans pounced on comments he made about Arizona's immigration bill.
Grijalva suggested that if national organizations refused to hold conventions in the state, it could sway the Legislature to back down on immigration. He walked back on the statements after a federal judge struck down sections of the bill, but state Republicans have accused him of calling for a boycott of local business.
The four-term representative is locked in a down-to-the-wire battle with physicist and political newcomer Ruth McClung, and the Cook Political Report rates the race as a "tossup."
Along with Grijalva, junior Democratic members such as Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Frank Kratovil of Maryland are all facing uphill struggles to hold their seats.
Industry groups hopeful, enviros wary
Off the Hill, industry groups are eager for the crucible to begin. "We would hope that the House Natural Resources Committee would conduct some oversight hearings on the way the federal government is handling oil and gas development in the West," said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. "We haven't seen any willingness of the current Congress to explore these issues."
Sgamma said slow, unnecessary red tape was preventing development that would create thousands of jobs and pump $4 billion into the economy of Western states.
But environmental groups fear losing what they see as some of their best congressional allies. "We've repeatedly seen that this committee is more progressive than the administration," said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Suckling noted the committee Democrats inserted onshore drilling regulations in the Democrats' ultimately ill-fated bid to pass legislation in response to the BP PLC oil spill. The administration opposed those provisions in its official comments on the House bill, saying the bill should take a more narrow scope.
"If [the committee] remains Democratic, I'd say it would be there to correct and cajole the administration," Suckling said. "If it becomes a Republican Congress, then, you can forget about it. I wouldn't waste my time making any requests of a Republican Congress."
But Bill Snape, the center's senior attorney, saw hope for conservation even if Republicans take the helm. "The House Natural Resources Committee has always been, historically where the Republicans always put their most retrograde members," he said, calling out Alaska's Young and former Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) as examples.
Snape said Hastings has recently been more in the "Young-Pombo mode," but earlier in his career had shown some conservation credentials. "Hastings would have to decide whether he wants to be a reactionary or whether he actually wants to govern," Snape said. "I think that's the problem and challenge facing the whole Republican Party."
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