US Republicans Target May For Vote On Bills Requiring Oil And Gas Leases

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–House Republicans are targeting next month for a preliminary vote on a set of bills that would direct federal regulators to lease areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Virginia coast for oil and gas drilling and require the government to act quickly on permits to drill.

Republicans are pushing the bills to add “what we think is certainty into the process of developing these resources,” Rep. Doc Hastings (R., Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources committee and a central backer of the bills, said Wednesday at a hearing in which Republicans built their case for the legislation.

Republicans are “tentatively” looking to “mark up” the legislation next month, said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources and hosted Wednesday’s hearing. A “mark up” is one step in clearing the way for the full Republican-controlled House to vote on the measure.

Republicans have also introduced similar legislation in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where its prospects are less clear.

House Democrats criticized the proposals Wednesday, saying they wouldn’t do enough to ensure offshore drilling is being conducted safely in the wake of last year’s explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 and caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

One bill requiring the Interior Department to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a drilling permit within 60 days may not give the agency enough time to evaluate permits under new standards adopted after Deepwater Horizon, said Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee.

“The result of the majority’s legislation could be to hamper new permits being issued,” Holt said, suggesting that the administration might have to reject permits if it does not have enough time.

If Interior has not made a decision on the permit within 60 days, the permit would be deemed “approved” under the Hastings bill.

“This committee and this congress should be enacting real reform to ensure that these disasters never happen again,” Holt said. “It’s hard to think that before we even enact legislation to improve the safety of offshore drilling, which we badly need, we would put more economies, more beaches, and potentially more lives at risk from another spill.”

One of the bills would direct Interior to move forward with a lease in the central Gulf of Mexico within four months and a lease in the western Gulf of Mexico within 8 months. A lease sale off the Virginia coast would have to occur within a year, and the administration would have to create a five-year lease plan that included areas with substantial oil and gas reserves.

Hastings noted that the bills would require companies to demonstrate the capacity to contain and respond to a spill and to meet “critical safety system requirements, including blowout prevention.” An undersea “blowout” led to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon.

“To suggest that these bills ignore safety I think misses the point entirely,” he said.

-By Ryan Tracy, Dow Jones Newswires