GOP congressional reps ‘energized’ over legislation

But detractors say ‘drill, baby, drill’ is nothing more than a cheap gimmick
The Colorado Statesman

Three Republican members of the Colorado congressional delegation have proposed three bills to streamline and enhance domestic energy production. But critics of the so-called “Three Stooges” of energy bills say the proposed legislation moves away from long-term solutions in the name of a quick political opportunity to attack President Barack Obama’s administration and Democratic proposals in a tightly contested election year.

The three bills unveiled last week to the Natural Resources Committee come from U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, and Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. All three play into the House Republicans’ American Energy Initiative and aim to expand onshore domestic energy production, lower gasoline prices and create new American jobs.

The bills were scheduled for a hearing on Thursday, but it is expected to take several weeks before the measures are marked-up and voted on to potentially move them to the full House for debate.

Tipton’s measure, called the “Planning for American Energy Act,” would establish an “all-of-the-above” American energy plan for using federal lands to meet the nation’s energy needs. The bill would:

• Require Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democrat and former U.S. Senator from Colorado, to develop a strategic energy plan every four years focusing on how to develop onshore energy resources; and
• Require that oil, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, oil shale and minerals needed for energy development be included in the plan.

“It is our job to make sure that the United States is able to operate and to be able to commence an energy security that Americans deserve,” Tipton told The Colorado Statesman on Tuesday. “That should really truly be our goal.”

But Matt Garrington, a prominent Colorado environmentalist and co-director of the Checks and Balances Project, a lobbyist and policy watchdog group with a focus on energy issues, says Tipton’s proposal moves away from a focus on renewable energy in the name of domestic onshore oil production. He fears that despite the proposal calling for all resources to be considered in development of the four-year energy plan, renewables will be left out of the equation.

“How that energy plan is going to be created remains to be seen, there’s something funky in there that makes it seem like renewable energy might get iced out,” said Garrington.

He says there is no need for an energy plan calling for more onshore drilling, noting that oil and natural gas production is at an all-time high. As of Sept. 30, 2011, the oil and gas industry had 620 unused drilling permits for Colorado’s federal lands, according to Garrington, and that drilling in Colorado was up 24 percent in 2011.

“Let’s be completely clear — ‘drill, baby, drill’ is nothing more than a cheap gimmick and Coloradans want more than a cheap gimmick,” said Garrington, arguing that drilling rarely affects gas prices, which are based on a world market. “We’re drilling for oil like crazy right now and it’s doing nothing to bring down gas prices.”

Garrington also has issues with Lamborn’s measure, called the “Streamlining Permitting of American Energy Act,” aimed at encouraging faster development of onshore oil, natural gas and renewable resources by:

• Streamlining the drilling permitting process and eliminating delays;
• Setting timelines for Salazar and the Interior Department to act on a permit to drill;
• Directing a portion of permit processing fees and rights of way fees to the local offices where the fees were collected in order to provide the human resources necessary to speed-up drilling operations; and
• Setting a 90-day time limit to file a legal challenge to an energy project, requiring the venue for legal actions to be the judicial district where the project is located, and limiting preliminary injunctions to halt energy projects to 60 days.

Lamborn says his bill aims to streamline the bureaucracy surrounding domestic energy production with the goal of increasing resources and lowering gas prices.

“There is some bureaucratic red tape and legal snarls that slow down energy production and this bill is intended to strike a balance by expediting around those obstacles in so that we can get energy production online,” Lamborn told The Statesman on Wednesday. “By making actions get started sooner we’ll get to their completion sooner.”

Garrington’s organization has raised concerns with the bill for cutting the public out of the conversation by limiting the judicial challenge process. “It would prohibit those constituencies from engaging in discussions about how public lands can be managed in a meaningful way,” he said.

But Lamborn says an extensive public input process will remain in place. “There’s still opportunities for the public to register public opinions, and there’s still opportunity for legal challenges,” he said. “But we have to strike a balance while preserving those factors. We need to keep projects moving along so that they can eventually produce energy.”

Coffman’s bill also focuses on domestic energy production by attempting to add certainty to the leasing of lands for American energy production. The so-called “Providing Leasing Certainty for American Energy Act” would:

• Expand onshore energy production by requiring Salazar and the Interior to conduct new lease sales in areas identified with the greatest energy potential, such as in many areas in Colorado. In 2011, the Interior Department only conducted lease sales on 3 percent of Colorado land that was identified as having the greatest energy potential.
• The bill would also prohibit the Interior from taking away leases already sold, require the Interior to set tight timelines for issuing the leases, and prohibit the Interior from changing rules after leases and contracts have been finalized.

Coffman’s office was unable to make the congressman available for an interview with The Statesman, but in a statement he said, “Although the president is taking credit for increased production, the truth is that his administration has spent nearly four years blocking and delaying domestic energy production.”

Political rhetoric growing

The tone of Coffman’s statement reflects a growing frustration within the Republican caucus over Obama and his administration’s Democratic policies surrounding domestic energy production.

Salazar’s office declined to comment for this article, pointing out that the bills have only just been unveiled.

But Obama and Democrats will be forced to defend themselves against attacks from the right in the upcoming election season over spiking gas prices, which actually dipped slightly around the country this week, but in Colorado climbed above the national average. Tuesday’s national average for regular unleaded stood at $3.85, down from $3.90 a gallon a week ago, but the average in Colorado is 4 cents higher than the average, at $3.89.

Lamborn acknowledges that the issue over gas prices will likely become increasingly political, stating, “It might be an issue, some of that is dependent on if other things are a higher priority at the time to people.”

“We don’t know the future and we don’t have a crystal ball, but no one wants high gas prices,” Lamborn said. “It certainly could be a factor because it fits the shoes of who this administration is. They’re not doing what they say they’re supposed to be doing; they talk about more energy production, but then they turn around and they have all these federal agencies restricting energy production.”

While some Republicans and conservatives have accused Democrats of wanting gas prices to soar above $5-per-gallon in order to advance a renewable energy agenda, Tipton says his focus is solely on increasing energy production, all politics aside.

“I just take the politics strictly out of it,” he said. “I’ve been through my district, I’ve seen the pain in young families’ eyes. It’s the gas tank or buying their children shoes.”

But Garrington said much of the talk from Republicans is rhetoric and partisan in nature, noting that the GOP will need to find issues that resonate with American families in order to beat Obama in November — such as issues surrounding gas prices. He says the majority of proposals coming from Republicans do little to actually lower gas prices.

“The threat of a plan is going to somehow convince speculators on Wall Street?” asked Garrington. “Like somehow we’re going to magically reduce gas prices without thinking about our energy resources.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com