In a grueling nine-hour markup, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a trio of bills yesterday aimed at increasing production of domestic oil and gas off the nation's coasts.
The advance of bills by Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) to accelerate and expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans is an early victory in the House GOP's "American Energy Initiative." The proposals could receive House votes as early as next month.
Democrats loaded the docket with more than two dozen amendments in hopes of making the markup uncomfortable for Republicans, whom they blamed for turning a blind eye to unanswered questions from the BP PLC oil spill last year in the Gulf.
But the bills emerged mostly unchanged with the notable exception of a provision by Texas Republican Bill Flores to extend lease terms for operators whose permitting was delayed in the wake of the BP spill.
Hastings passed a separate amendment removing language to provide incentives for private seismic exploration of uncharted federal waters, a proposal that drew rare agreement from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee's ranking member.
Spencer Pederson, a Republican spokesman, said Hastings plans to offer the language as a standalone bill later.
Each bill eventually passed, largely along party lines, with Republicans managing to win support from Democrats Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Jim Costa of California on all three.
Both H.R. 1230 and H.R. 1231 passed by a 29-14 vote. H.R. 1229 passed 27-16.
"Republicans are taking specific action to address rising gasoline prices," Hastings said after passage of H.R. 1229, which would set two-month deadlines for the Interior Department to act on drilling permits and require the prompt approval of projects halted after the BP spill, among other provisions. "This bill ensures that endless bureaucratic delays and non-answers will no longer be tolerated."
All of the Democratic amendments were defeated, most in recorded votes, the last of which took place at about 7 p.m.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, proposed amendments that would prevent H.R. 1230 from validating environmental reviews completed under the George W. Bush administration but rejected by the current administration. The reviews would allow the resumption of three lease sales in the Gulf and a scrapped lease sale off the shores of Virginia.
"The environmental impact statement should reflect reality as we best know it today, not as we imagined it four years ago," Holt said. "We should not be deeming something we know is wrong as right."
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the subcommittee chairman, said there would be a "library" of documentation to accompany the lease sales, and other Republicans said it would be impossible for the Interior Department to complete new environmental impact statements within the allotted time frame.
But Republicans were divided on a proposed amendment from Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) that would give governors the ability to opt out of proposed lease sales off their coasts if they can demonstrate that voters do not want it.
The amendment was aimed at H.R. 1231, which would require Interior to hold lease sales in areas believed to hold promising minerals and would set a production goal of 3 million barrels of oil a day in the agency's next five-year leasing plan. Runyan's amendment failed.
Democrats too tried to pass measures that would protect their coasts from the effects of a potential oil spill. Markey and Reps. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) all offered amendments that would bar drilling in sensitive waters near their coastlines.
"The Chesapeake Bay is one of our most important and sensitive resources," said Sarbanes, whose amendment would have removed the Virginia lease sale, much of which would conflict with the Defense Department and shipping lanes. "By the time you're done with it, you only have about 10 percent of this parcel in play," which contains enough oil to satisfy national demand for about a day, he said.
Another Holt amendment would forbid companies from obtaining new leases or permits to drill unless Interior can certify the company is meeting basic safety and environmental requirements on existing leases.
Republicans blasted the proposal as a gift to foreign firms that would have a leg up on American companies if they had no record in U.S. water on which to be judged.
While the amendment was defeated, top Interior officials yesterday indicated the issue may not be dead.
In a briefing with reporters, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich said they are reviewing whether a company's disciplinary records or previous fines should play a role in how the agency reviews project proposals.
BP, for example, will be treated the same way as every other company as it pursues a resumption of exploratory drilling in the Gulf, Salazar said.
While the administration rejected an invitation to testify on Hastings' bills, Salazar yesterday said they collectively reflect "amnesia" of the BP spill and the difficulty industry and regulators faced containing the oil (E&ENews PM, April 12).
"Some people seem to have gotten amnesia of Deepwater Horizon and the horrific BP spill," he said. "I don't have amnesia."