House Republicans Scorn Environment in Favor of Oil and Gas

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, September 29, 2005 (ENS) - Two House committees on Wednesday advanced post-hurricane legislation that relaxes environmental regulations on oil refineries and opens much of the nation’s coast and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

Republican leaders said the impact of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina on energy prices exposed the need to boost domestic energy supplies and ease regulation of the nation’s energy infrastructure, despite the recent passage of a $16 billion energy bill.

"We cannot stop hurricanes, but we can mitigate some of the adverse impacts on our energy infrastructure and our economy that hurricanes can cause," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.


Texas Congressman Joe Barton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Critics said the new energy legislation does little to help consumers with rising energy costs and rolls back regulations that protect public health and the environment.

The legislation is "a hastily crafted, minimally reviewed bill of dubious virtue," that does nothing to address the nation’s growing demand for energy, said Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The two bills will be combined and considered by the full House next week.

Democrats blasted Republicans for pushing through the new energy legislation with limited debate and discussion – the bills were written early this week.

Dingell said the rush to move forward with the bills reflected "the desire of the Republican leadership of the House to use the hardships and devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to push various parts of their agenda."

Barton’s committee worked all day – some 16 hours - to finish one piece of the new House energy plan, ironing out provisions to encourage oil companies to invest in new refineries and to ease federal air regulations.

The bill relaxes parts of the Clean Air Act, including the New Source Review program that require refineries and coal-fired power plants to install new pollution equipment when they expand operations.


Representative John Dingell is a Michigan Democrat and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The changes are in line with revisions proposed by the Bush administration that have been challenged in court by states, environmentalists and public health advocates.

In addition, the bill eases federal ozone standards and gives states broader authority to opt out of federal pollution clean up plans.

The legislation requires the President to designate sites on federal lands – such as closed military bases – for new refineries and provides risk insurance to companies building new refineries. It gives the U.S. Energy Department oversight of refinery permits and reduces local and state input into siting decisions.

"Our country needs more oil refineries because the people who work for a living need gasoline to get to work," Barton said.

Proponents note that refinery capacity in the United States has dropped by some 50 percent in the past two decades – and that refineries are currently operating at near 100 percent.

The last new refinery was built in the United States in 1976.

Representative Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the bill "proposes a fix for a problem that simply doesn’t exist."

Oil companies have shut refineries – and expanded capacity at some facilities – in order to take advantage of a very tight market for gasoline and do not need more help in the wake of record profits, Democrats said.

The legislation perpetuates "a very serious fraud that the reason we have these high prices is that we like clean air and clean water," said Representative Jay Inslee, a Washingon Democrat.

The Barton legislation has attracted support of industry groups, but has run into broad opposition from environmentalists and public health advocates as well as state and local officials.

In a statement released Wednesday, United States Conference of Mayors Executive Director Tom Cochran said his organization is "appalled and shocked" by the legislation.

"While we support Congress' efforts to address the nation's energy challenges, we adamantly oppose at this critical time in the nation's history any move to strip state and local governments of their authority," Cochran said.


California Republican Richard Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
A companion bill approved Wednesday by the House Resources Committee takes aim at the production of raw energy from domestic sources, including the Outer Continental Shelf and the Arctic refuge.

"This is not emergency legislation it just comes at a time when an emergency many of us have predicted has come true," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican.

"We are taking steps to update regulations that unnecessarily suffocate safe energy production here at home," Pombo said. "This legislation will lead to increased and more diverse U.S. energy supplies to prevent disruptions and to bring future price relief."

Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the committee, noted that many of the provisions in the bill have been passed previously by the House but rejected by the Senate.

Rahall called the legislation "an accumulation of the losers."

"It lacks any and all budgetary sanity," he told colleagues.


Nick Rahallis a West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the House Resources Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The bill lifts the moratorium on oil and gas development along much of the nation’s coast, immediately opening the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to natural gas drilling and giving states to opt out of the moratorium to allow oil development. States would share in the royalties from offshore drilling.

The issue of high natural gas prices is "a greater threat to America than terrorism," said Pennsylvania Republican John Peterson, who called the OCS is "the safest place" to drill for natural gas and oil.

"You have less environmental degradation, less wildlife habitat destruction," Peterson said. "We are going to do this … it is just a matter of when."

Lifting the moratorium will do little to ease natural gas prices, critics say, and will harm tourism and coastal environments.

According to the U.S. Minerals Management Service 80 percent of the nation's undiscovered, economically recoverable OCS gas is located in the Central and Western part of the Gulf of Mexico, which is currently not subject to the moratorium.

The legislation opens ANWR to oil drilling – one of the most contentious energy issues in Congress.

Proponents say the refuge, which is believed to hold some 5.7 to 16 billion barrels of oil, must be tapped to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

But opponents say the refuge is an ecological treasure that should be protected and cast doubt that its oil will make much impact on the nation’s energy supply.

Representative George Miller, a California Democrat said "it is a fool’s bargain" to believe the United States can drill its way to energy security. The nation holds about three percent of the world’s known oil resources and three percent of known natural gas.

"This bill does not deal with reality," Miller said.

Pombo said the time could be ripe to finally open the refuge - the Senate, which has repeatedly defeated attempts to open ANWR, voted 51-49 in May to approve drilling by including leasing revenues in the budget resolution.

"There are signs of stirring in the other body," Pombo said, "as though they are finally beginning to understand that our current course of benign neglect toward developing more of our own energy is ruinous."

The legislation also boosts incentives for development from deposits of oil shales and limits eases environmental review of energy projects on public land.

One provision streamlines the process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for renewable energy projects on federal lands by eliminating the requirement that alternatives are considered. It also cuts the comment period on proposed projects to 20 days.

Democrats say the provision is unnecessary and guts one of the nation’s landmark environmental laws.

"The kind of wholesale exemptions in this bill we are talking about today are not needed," said Representative Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat. "It completely does away with NEPA."