The House passed an energy bill on Tuesday that Democrats say will increase offshore drilling and end a ban on oil shale development in Utah. But Republicans called it a "fraud" that will do little but give Democrats some election-year political cover.
Of key significance to Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, persuaded Democratic leaders to include a provision to reverse a ban on developing oil shale on federal lands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. It would allow such development in any state where legislatures pass laws favoring commercial oil shale leases.
Matheson said that through several meetings with leaders, "We had a substantive discussion about the value of the potential resource. There are 1.8 trillion barrels of oil available there (through oil shale), which is more than all the offshore reserves combined. That's a big deal for Utah and America."
Matheson added, "For 30 years, we've banned even exploring the possibility of developing that resource. It didn't make sense to people in Utah. For a production bill, this needed to be in it. They agreed."
"Matheson was unwavering in his efforts," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "This language will lift the moratorium on the final federal oil shale regulations and allow Utah to move forward in its long pursuit of this domestic natural resource."
The bill passed 236-189 with Matheson supporting it, and Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon, both R-Utah, opposing it. The bill passed even though environmental groups abruptly decided to oppose it after Matheson's oil shale provision was added just before introduction of the final version.
National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger sent letters to House members saying Matheson's provision puts "at risk millions of acres of wildlife habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Moreover, commercial oil shale leasing could lead to dramatic increases in global warming pollution."
Schweiger added, "Oil shale production is five times more carbon dioxide intensive than conventional drilling and gasoline production. Shale production requires five gallons of water to produce one gallon of fuel, and the vast majority of shale is located in arid states with limited water resources."
Other environmental groups were upset that Democrats also reversed earlier opposition to all drilling on the outer continental shelf. The bill allows it anywhere 100 miles offshore, or 50 to 100 miles off the shore of states that choose to allow it there. Either distance is well beyond where most of the estimated 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil is believed to be located.
States also would not be given any royalties from offshore drilling, and money instead would go for programs to promote development of alternate energy sources.
Still, Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society, said, "In the wake of a major federal energy scandal, no industry holds less public confidence, yet we stand on the verge of turning over our coasts and sensitive public lands to their pro-drilling agenda."
Democrats promoted their 290-page bill as a key step toward solving high energy prices now and toward alternative sources over time. It will wipe out $18 billion in tax breaks for the five largest oil companies and require oil companies to use oil leases or lose them.
Republicans said the Senate will not pass it before Congress adjourns, so it is merely a political ploy to provide political cover to Democrats who had opposed GOP bills calling for much more drilling.
Republicans, during the five-week August recess, met at the House every day to call for Congress to return and vote to allow more drilling. They complain the Democrats finally put forward a bill they say does too little, and complained bitterly that Democrats did not allow votes on amendments or the alternative bill proposed by Republicans.
Bishop was among Republicans who blasted the bill in a floor speech.
"This bill we have before us has had no public hearings, no committee work, no review, no amendments by Republicans or Democrats rank and file, no reading of the bill because it was printed after everyone left last night. It's not a comprehensive solution," he said.
Bishop said even Matheson's section on oil shale, which he said he originally thought was a "bright star in an otherwise dismal bill," creates potential constitutional problems by requiring state approval before any oil shale development. He said the bill is written so that if that section goes down in a court challenge, the entirebill goes down.
"We could have done so much more," Bishop told the House. "Instead we will vote on a hollow shell of a bill."
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