WASHINGTON (CN) – As the Trump administration continues to bowl through Obama-era environmental regulations, the House Natural Resources Committee held their last hearing before recess to discuss the future of oil and gas development on federal lands.
With the repeal the Waters of the United States Rule now queued up and the Interior Department’s review of 21 years’ worth of national monuments designations underway, talk of permitting access to federal lands was dominated by sharp critiques of the oil and gas industries who, in the opinion of one committee member, stand at the ready to scoop up all control of the nation’s public lands and resources if given the chance.
“I don’t oppose oil and gas development on public lands, what I do oppose is letting the gas and oil industry call the shots on how to manage those lands that are owned by all Americans,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif. “It has taken five months and nearly every move this administration has made could come out of the boardrooms of the American Petroleum Institute or the National Mining Association and that may actually be the case given the number of oil and coal lobbyists at the Interior Department, the EPA and the White House.”
“Rules to protect public health? Gone. Rules to cut down on air and water pollution? Gone. Protections for fish and wildlife? Gone. Rules to make sure companies are paying their fair share? Gone,” Lowenthal said.
The congressman continued for several minutes, critiquing the current administration’s approach to Obama-era protections.
“The administration is operating under idea that the Department of the Interior should become a service station for the oil and gas industry,” he said. “Which lands would you like to lease? Where and how fast do you want to drill? What regulations do you want us to appeal? Are these national monuments getting in your way? Just let us know. The Department of the Interior is apparently here to keep you happy.”
The recent budget released by the Interior Department offered no consolation either, Lowenthal added.
“[Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke] has paid lip service to supporting all forms of energy and gave us an all or above policy,” he said.
The representative was referring to Zinke’s earlier promises to Congress that the department would more fully balance its energy investment portfolio over fossils and renewable fuels.
“But if we look at this budget, it increases oil, gas and coal by $34 million while renewables take a $15.3 million cut. The fossil fuel increase is the only increase in the entire budget. Energy policy is written by big oil. The only measure of success for the Bureau of Land Management was how many drilling permits it could issue? But what did we get? Regulators getting into bed with people they’re supposed to be regulating and a thirsting for revenues that put safety standards on the backburner and helped contribute to the Deepwater Horizon spill,” he said.
Katharine MacGregor, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior’s land and minerals management agency, didn’t dive deeply into budgetary questions but moved focus back to the ease and access of permitting for developers.
MacGregor told the committee that the back log of permits was dwindling swiftly and that this was to be celebrated because in her view quicker permitting equates to positive returns on investments not just for developers, but also all Americans.
Rep. Darren Soto, D.-Florida, whose state relies heavily on healthy lands and waters to boost its own economy, wasn’t ready to shift gears from environmental concerns to permitting issues.
“States are addicted to oil industry jobs because they haven’t diversified their state’s energy resources,” Soto said. “If we look into the future, we need to make sure we’re addressing climate change, pushing renewables and making sure we’re conserving our parks and natural resources,” he said.
Soto did praise the department’s backlog reduction, but asked MacGregor why, despite this win for the department, leasing permits still taking at least a month to three months longer to be completed that under previous administrations.
“The leasing times from 2005 to 2015 have been about 190 to 220 days under the Bush and Obama administrations. Now it’s 250,” he said. “I see we have 192 million of 213 million acres of land eligible for leases as well. We’re talking 10 percent left over. Is this 10 percent even feasible for leases or is this something that we really don’t need to be pursuing?”
Law professor Mark Squillace of the University of Colorado at Boulder volunteered an explanation, saying that leasing was feasible but the committee’s concerns should be focused elsewhere.
“The concern is when you’re deciding if you want to lease oil and gas, you go through a land use planning process. The leasing actually occurs from nominations from the industry. The industry decides what lands they want put up for leasing and they come out and bid on them. That process hasn’t worked robustly in recent times because there hasn’t been that much interest,” Squillace said.
Soto asked if this was because there was a lack of demand for the space or if it was truly a regulatory issue that gums up the works.
Squillace said it was demand and Soto quickly interrupted him.
“So Americans in the world are more interested in reducing their demand on oil and that’s reducing the need for leases?” he asked.
Squillace quickly agreed and then reminded the committee about the balance needed between development and regulations.
“I want to address this. We’re dealing with public lands. It is necessary, not just legally required, that we focus on the consequences of fuel, oil and gas development resources on our lands. That kind of development cannot be damaging and regulatory components are necessary to make sure we’re protecting all of these resources,” he said.