Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.
A House committee will review a handful of Republican bills Thursday to accelerate energy development on public lands. Sponsors say the proposals would create jobs and lower the price of gasoline.
The proposals — which come at a time of record oil production on public lands — are an assault on Obama administration policies that Republicans claim have stifled development and crimped energy security.
But critics of the bills warned they could spoil Western landscapes, harm wildlife and spawn conflicts among land users.
A bill by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) would block the administration’s ability to withdraw oil and gas leases after auction, set deadlines for resolving environmental protests and require the Interior Department to offer parcels for lease sooner after they are nominated by industry, among other steps.
The bill would also drive a stake through oil and gas leasing reforms that have formed a core of the Obama administration’s public lands policy.
“Although the president is taking credit for increased production, the truth is that his administration has spent nearly four years blocking and delaying domestic energy production,” Coffman said in a statement. “In Colorado, new issued leases for oil and gas production have dropped… This is costing us jobs and increasing what Americans pay for energy and families can’t afford for this trend to continue.”
A separate bill by Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) would require the Bureau of Land Management to reduce permitting times for new wells by about 90 percent and would charge a new $5,000 fee to protest a lease parcel.
It would also block a BLM policy requiring additional review of projects that are permitted using categorical exclusions, in addition to setting limitations on when and where lawsuits can be heard and on whether plaintiffs can be reimbursed for attorneys’ fees.
A third bill by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) would require the Interior secretary to develop a strategic plan every four years for meeting future energy demand through increased development of oil, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, oil shale and minerals from federal lands.
Critics say the bills are giveaways to oil and gas companies that already own access to tens of million of acres in the West.
“Some members of the energy industry claim that inadequate opportunities exist to develop and drill public lands,” said Tom Franklin, senior director of science and policy for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which includes numerous sportsmen’s groups. “The numbers, however, tell a different story. Sportsmen support the responsible development of our public lands energy resources, but we believe that before new leases are issued, particularly those that are located in areas important to fish and wildlife, industry should develop leases that already exist.”
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said the bills are a necessary safeguard against agency actions that have had a chilling effect on development.
The Coffman bill, for example, is an apparent response to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision in early 2009 to withdraw 77 leases in Utah after they were sold at auction in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration. Salazar said the leases would have spoiled viewsheds and air quality at nearby national parks and monuments. Local officials say the decision drove millions of dollars in investments out of the state.
“Once you’ve paid for something at auction, you should have some certainly that it’s not going to be withdrawn arbitrarily,” said Sgamma, who will testify at Thursday’s hearing before the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
The bill would also require the agency to issue leases within two months of their sale, as prescribed in the Mineral Leasing Act, and would prohibit BLM from adding new stipulations to leases. It is an apparent response to BLM’s decisions to delay issuance of many leases in Wyoming until the agency could resolve potential impacts to sage grouse and other resources.
Sgamma, whose group filed a lawsuit in Wyoming to force issuance of the leases, said companies need greater certainty.
“When a stipulation is added after a sale, it changes the terms of the contract,” she said. “That retroactive application of stipulations is really a breach of contract and out of line with general U.S. contract jurisprudence.”
Sgamma said energy companies wait up to five years for leases they nominate to be offered for sale. Coffman’s bill would set minimum standards for leasing in areas that have been opened for development in resource management plans.
The Bureau of Land Management will not be testifying, the agency said.
The hearing will also feature a bill by Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would allow fees for renewable energy rights of way to be used to process permits.
Lawmakers will also be hearing testimony on one of the mining industry’s top priorities — speeding up permit reviews for projects and limiting the flurry of lawsuits from environmental groups.
Nevada GOP Rep. Mark Amodei’s H.R. 4402 aims to make the United States more competitive and self-sufficient when it comes to resource and mineral needs.
“The length, complexity and uncertainty of our permitting process are consistently cited as the primary reasons investors put their dollars elsewhere,” National Mining Association CEO Hal Quinn said about the bill.
Another mining-related bill before the panel has garnered some bipartisan support. Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis’ H.R. 1192 would keep the royalty rate for soda ash — a key resource used in making glass, chemicals and detergents — low at 2 percent to better compete with Chinese producers.
The Green River Basin in Sweetwater County, Wyo., has the world’s largest deposit of trona, a mineral mined for soda ash. Oregon lawmakers are also supporting the bill because of shipping facilities there.
“It has been a pretty frustrating experience,” Lummis said in a recent hearing about trying to keep the royalty rate from reverting to 6 percent. Interior Secretary Salazar responded, “There is a legal constraint that we can’t get around.”
(Banner photo by John Amos/Flickr)