Energy bill offsets oil, gas companies

Energy bill offsets oil, gas companies

A provision in a House-passed energy bill would take steps to reduce the time energy companies say they waste waiting for the government to act on permits to drill or mine for oil, gas and coal.

Interior Department officials have said they are struggling to keep up with the growing mountain of applications for permits to drill on public land.

But House members say they worry that government workers sometimes unnecessarily drag their feet as they consider applications. Under the House energy bill approved last week, the government would have to buy back leases — and pay restitution in some cases — if it delays action.

“This provision will put pressure on state and federal agencies to act expeditiously and fairly on permit requests (and) appeals,” said Charles Isom, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who proposed the measure.

Environmentalists say the provision effectively creates a new entitlement program for energy companies, and pushes the government to approve permits at the expense of the environment and local communities.

They are especially concerned because failing to act on an application would be treated as a breach of contract under the bill, potentially enabling a company to be compensated for more than just the cost of the lease.

“It opens the door to a lot of mischief, I think,” said Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with the Wilderness Society.

It is unclear what the Senate will do with the bill, which also lifts a ban on oil and gas drilling off much of the U.S. coast. Florida senators have threatened to filibuster because of its offshore drilling provisions.

The provision is part of the latest effort by some members of Congress to remove barriers to extracting vast oil and gas resources beneath public lands and off U.S shores. Another measure in the House bill would give potentially millions of dollars in royalty breaks to the oil shale and tar sand industries.

Demand for oil and gas resources is intense because of high prices and a push to develop domestic energy sources. Industry officials told Congress last week that natural gas production from reserves in the Rockies is projected to double in the next 20 years, surpassing production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bill proponents say they just don’t want government to unnecessarily hold up energy development.

The lease buy-back provision “makes Uncle Sam live up to his end of a lawful contract,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Conservation groups question whether government could or should go faster.

Bureau of Land Management director Kathleen Clarke recently told a Senate committee that her agency, which oversees much of the nation’s onshore public oil and gas reserves, faces an “uphill battle” to process applications as fast as they come in.

BLM offices are grappling with an avalanche of permits and in some cases high turnover, according to an article in the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune. Conservation and sportsmen’s groups are already complaining the agency is neglecting its environmental duties to keep up with the permits.

“It’s a race to the bottom for the environment,” said Matt Garrington, field director for Environment Colorado. “This is a ‘lease now and ask questions later’ policy.”

The Associated Press

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