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House Dems Looking to Restore Obama-era Policies on Public Land Oil & Gas Leases

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Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California chairing an earlier meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Photo: Courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources

The Democratically controlled House of Representatives is continuing its push to essentially reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations, this time focusing on a policy that has largely impacted rural and native populations in the U.S.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held its third hearing last week on a bill to change the policies that govern leasing for oil and gas development on public lands through a bill to restore community input in the leasing process. H.R 3225, Restoring Community Input and Public Protections in Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2019, is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of California.

The process of granting leases for development on public lands falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the federal Department of Interior (DOI). In a January 2018 policy, the BLM shortened the protest period for lease sales from 30 to 10 days, removed the requirement for the public to be involved during the lease nominations, and removed the 30-day review and comment period for environmental reviews. H.R. 3225 would reverse the shortened time periods to previous standards and also increase royalty and rental rates for leases on public lands.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California opened Thursday’s hearing by saying that the government’s responsibility to balance access to natural resources on public lands with protective measures to secure it for future generations cannot be accomplished without input from local public and tribal communities. He accused the BLM of instead prioritizing the size and frequency of lease sales in the last couple years.

But the BLM’s Deputy Director of Operations Michael Nedd defended the current policy and reminded the committee nearly half of the generated revenue goes back to the lease host states. Nedd said that in 2018 the federal lands produced over $3 billion in federal revenue and added 2018 was a record year for lease sales revenue.

He was supported by a number of GOP members of the committee who pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as already providing a space for community input on such leases. The NEPA is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, requiring the EPA to review and comment on the environmental impact statements of all other federal agencies under the Clean Air Act.  

The 2018 policy changes were also meant to remove redundancy in oversight of these leases and reduce the unnecessary burden on businesses created by the previous presidential administration, according to ranking minority member Paul Gosar. 

Gosar pointed to a number of Obama-era policies he said are the reason the U.S. had seen drastic declines in the number of leases managed by the BLM. According to Gosar, by the end of Obama’s administration, the number was the lowest since 1985. 

The current policy, however, has led to a score of ongoing lawsuits attempting to block the leases, which Lowenthal said were a direct result of excluding tribal and other communities from the consultation process. Among them are proposed lease sales in Nevada’s Ruby Mountain, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and efforts to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

And during previous subcommittee hearings, members were presented with evidence that despite increasing revenues, there have been negative impacts to the health of both the people and the environment of the communities experiencing what Gosar called an “energy renaissance.” 

Emily Collins, who testified at a subcommittee meeting earlier this year, represents rural residents in the Pittsburgh and Akron areas through the non-profit Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services. Since 2014, Collins testified, 33 to 42 percent of the cases she’s taken on have involved oil and gas extraction, and 45 individual cases related specifically to water contamination.

Collins said the vast majority of her clients’ environmental problems were caused by a “lack of governmental investigation of the site-specific geological characteristics of the areas being developed and under resourced local jurisdictions.”

Len Necefer, a professor of both American Indian Studies and Public Policy at the  University of Arizona, recalled a long and personal history of health impacts among his Navajo community from unchecked, or under-regulated energy development during his testimony last week. 

The bill was introduced on June 12 and is now on course for a full committee hearing before it can make its way to the House chamber. The date for the full House Natural Resources Committee hearing hasn’t been set yet.