House votes for online lease sales for offshore drilling

House votes for online lease sales for offshore drilling
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The House voted Tuesday to mandate that the federal government move to an internet-based auction system for offshore drilling rights.

The bill from Reps. Garret GravesGarret Neal GravesLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Video of young boy shielding Greta Thunberg from photographers goes viral Climate activist Greta Thunberg implores lawmakers to 'listen to the best available science' MORE (R-La.) and Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalDemocrats dread Kennedy-Markey showdown in 2020 House leaves for six-week August recess House passes bill opposing BDS, exposing divide among Democrats MORE (D-Calif.) aims to increase efficiency and modernize the auction system that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) uses to sell rights offshore to oil and natural gas companies.

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The legislation passed by voice vote Tuesday with no objections stated on the House floor.

Federal officials have for years held biennial in-person auctions with paper bids read orally, but last month, they started broadcasting the events online.

The bill, dubbed the Innovation in Offshore Leasing Act, would give BOEM a year to move the entire system, including bid submissions, onto the internet.

In moving the events online, the government would thwart environmental activists who have started to protest at lease sale events. Government and industry representatives say the protests, organized under the Keep it in the Ground movement, have been extraordinarily disruptive to auctions.

“What this bill is designed to do is to bring us into the 21st century, to allow for potential bidders to go online to broaden access, to allow for the taxpayers’ resource, for the American public’s resource, to have more bidders, to have more competition, to ultimately make sure that the full value of that resource is realized by taxpayers,” Graves said on the House floor.

“This simply puts it online. It simply allows for better access to information,” he said.

Graves argued that the bill would increase transparency, since people who not have to attend events in person to see the bid data, and all of the information would be accessible on the internet.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who managed the floor debate for Democrats, said the legislation “really would bring the offshore oil and gas leasing system into the 21st century.”

While undermining protests is not the stated aim of the legislation, greens nonetheless took offense to it.

“Hiding offshore fossil fuel auctions from public scrutiny won’t stop the climate justice movement. People are demanding climate action and protection of coastal communities and wildlife,” Blake Kopcho, an organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“These are public resources and any decision to sell them off to the highest bidder ought to be done in the bright light of day. Better yet, the fossil fuels should simply be left in the ground.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is one of the groups that has organized protests at BOEM auctions and at sales hosted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees drilling on federal land.

The oil and gas industry supports the legislation, saying it would make the auction process easier and more efficient.

The Obama administration said it supports online auctions. But Walter Cruikshank, BOEM’s deputy director, objected to the bill, arguing it is overly prescriptive, its deadline is too soon to get necessary systems off the ground and the government already has the authority it needs to move auctions online if needed.

“Many of the provisions in H.R. 5577 are already addressed in our current lease sale process, and the prescriptive nature of these provisions, if enacted, could actually reduce BOEM’s flexibility to institute future reforms to improve its processes,” Cruikshank told the House Natural Resources Committee in July.

BLM made final a rule last week that allows it to hold its onshore lease sales online. It has experimented with online sales, but has not committed to hold any particular auctions through those means.