House approves bill to speed up drilling

The House on Wednesday approved GOP legislation that would force regulators to speed up oil-and-gas drilling permits and offer more federal lands for energy development.

Defying a White House veto threat, lawmakers voted 228-192 for the bill, with seven Democrats joining Republicans in support.

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Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-Colo.) bill would also limit court review of energy projects and charge activists thousands of dollars to file formal administrative protests of leases and drilling permits.

It’s the latest measure from Republicans who accuse the White House of keeping too much federal land off-limits to drilling and taking too long to approve projects.

“We have tremendous potential for new onshore oil and natural-gas production on federal lands,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said during debate.

“But the Obama administration is actively and purposely keeping these resources off-limits. Leasing and permitting delays, regulatory hurdles, and ever-changing rules are a few of the reasons energy production on federal lands is in decline,” he said.

The bill faces grim prospects in the Senate.

But it’s the latest move in the political and PR thrust-and-parry between Republicans and the White House over energy and whether President Obama should take any credit for the nation’s oil-and-gas production surge.

Republicans are bringing several energy bills to the floor this week.

Another bill, which the House is slated to vote on later Wednesday, would block planned Interior Department regulation of the oil-and-gas extraction method called hydraulic fracturing.

The bills arrive as U.S. oil production is at its highest levels in nearly two decades and natural gas production is at record levels.

But Republicans and industry groups say the nation could go even faster, and point out that while production is up, the overall combined amount of oil-and-gas produced from U.S. federal lands and waters has been falling in recent years.

“Energy companies are practically fleeing from developing energy on Federal lands in favor of the more reliable and efficient State and private permitting processes,” Lamborn said.

While Republicans blame White House policies, much of the U.S. boom has come from the increasing ability of industry to tap shale plays in Pennsylvania, Texas and other states where the federal government owns relatively few lands. The Interior Department is a far bigger landowner in Western energy-producing states like Colorado and Wyoming.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) called the bill a giveaway to oil companies that would curtail environmental protections.

“Republicans have this playbook that they just can't get away from, this shopworn 2008 drill, baby, drill playbook,” said Holt, the top Democrat on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

“And so they want to try to make things easier for Big Oil while trying to ensure that conservation and hunting and fishing and recreation and renewables and everything else that these federal lands might be used for has to take a back seat to drilling,” he said.

Holt also flagged some data of his own.

He noted that for onshore federal areas that the bill addresses (as opposed to onshore and offshore areas combined), oil production has climbed in recent years.

“Onshore oil production from federal and Indian lands, just what we are talking about in this legislation, has gone up every year since the president has been in office. It is now 35 percent higher than it was under President Bush. Yet this legislation would not just reduce environmental productions. It would gut them; it would remove them,” he said.

Natural-gas production from both onshore and offshore federal areas has been declining in recent years, according to Energy Information Administration data. Click here and here for more on production trends on federal lands and waters.

The White House threatened to veto the bill on Tuesday, saying it would thwart environmental review of drilling projects.

The measure would “reverse Administration oil and gas leasing reforms that have established orderly, open, efficient, and environmentally sound processes for energy development on public lands,” the White House said.

Provisions in the bill include setting a 60-day deadline for Interior Department regulators to approve or deny onshore drilling permits. If no decision is made, permits would be "deemed" approved.

Hastings said that it currently takes an average of 307 days to get a permit for drilling on federal lands.

The bill passed after Republicans rejected several Democratic amendments.

—Pete Kasperowicz contributed.