OFFSHORE DRILLING

House poised to vote to vastly expand leasing, rebuke Obama plan

The House this week is expected to vote on GOP legislation to expand drilling access to much of the nation's waters, rebuffing an Obama administration leasing plan that Republicans blame for crippling jobs.

The vote on H.R. 6082, by House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), marks the latest House attempt to wrest leasing decisions traditionally made by the Interior Department. It is part of an ongoing election-year battle over Obama's record of supporting energy production and jobs while protecting the environment.

"For over three years the Obama administration has been playing politics with our nation's offshore energy future, sending energy jobs overseas and deepening America's dependence on unfriendly foreign countries for energy," Hastings said last week in a statement following the bill's passage from committee. "In stark contrast to President Obama's plan that outsources American jobs and American energy, the bipartisan plan that passed today is an environmentally responsible drill-smart plan that will create jobs, grow our economy, and lower gasoline prices with more American energy."

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet this evening to decide which amendments could be debated on the floor. The deadline for member proposals is 11 a.m.

The bill would expand future offshore leasing to almost all of the Atlantic Ocean, the southern Pacific and Alaska's Bristol Bay, all areas that were excluded from Interior's final five-year leasing plan. The bill also roughly doubles the number of sales in the Obama plan and pushes up by three years sales Interior scheduled in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

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Democrats and Interior have slammed the Republican proposal as a threat to the environment and a slap against states along the West Coast and parts of the Atlantic Ocean that have opposed oil and gas development off their shores.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has defended the agency's leasing plan, arguing that it provides access to most of the nation's energy resources while acknowledging the lack of oil-spill response capacity and resource assessments in the Atlantic, where conflict also exists with the military.

The Natural Resources Committee passed the bill Wednesday on a mostly party-line vote, drawing support from Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California and opposition from Republican Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, who tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment giving voters in his state the ability to opt out of leasing.

Democrats also pushed amendments eliminating tax breaks to the oil and gas industry, requiring new environmental safeguards in the Arctic and forgoing lease sales in the Atlantic, among other provisions. All amendments were defeated.

Democrats in past drilling debates on the House floor have proposed amendments requiring companies to renegotiate royalty-free leases, ensuring that oil and gas mined in the United States is not exported, and blocking oil and gas development off Southern California and Northeastern states, among others.

But it is unclear how long Democrats will seek to draw out debate this week. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the committee's ranking member, signaled frustration last week at debating another bill that has little chance of Senate approval.

"It reportedly costs $24 million a week to keep the House in session," Markey said. "That means we have cost taxpayers more than $20 million debating drilling bills from this committee that had no chance of becoming law."

This week's vote is the latest in a series aimed at expanding domestic production and contrasting GOP plans with Obama policy.

The chamber last month passed an energy package requiring the Bureau of Land Management to lease at least one-fourth of the lands that industry asks for, among many other provisions (E&ENews PM, June 21). And in February, the House approved a bill to expand oil and gas development off the nation's coasts, in an Alaskan reserve and on experimental shale tracts in the Intermountain West (E&E Daily, Feb. 17).

Schedule: The Rules Committee hearing is Monday, July 23, at 5 p.m. in H-313, the Capitol.

Witnesses: TBA.

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