As the House moved Tuesday toward a vote on a massive Democratic energy bill, environmental groups suddenly tried to kill it after Democratic leaders persuaded by Utah Rep. Jim Matheson included a provision to reverse a ban on developing oil shale on federal lands in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger sent letters to House members saying that policy reversal puts "at risk millions of acres of wildlife habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain West important to hunters, anglers and other wildlife enthusiasts. Moreover, commercial oil shale leasing could lead to dramatic increases in global warming pollution."
Other environmental groups were upset that Democrats also reversed earlier opposition to all drilling on the outer continental shelf and pursued a compromise to allow it in areas at least 50 miles offshore if states approve it. States would not be given any royalties, however, and such money instead would go toward developing alternative energy sources.
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."
Matheson had spent much of recent weeks prodding his party leaders to lift a moratorium on issuing final rules on commercial oil shale leases on federal lands and allow it in states if their legislatures pass laws endorsing such leases.
"We had a substantive discussion about the value of the potential resource. There are 1.8 trillion barrels of oil available there, which is more than all the offshore reserves combined. That's a big deal for Utah and America," Matheson said.
"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," he said.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., both gave Matheson credit for persuading leaders to make a last-minute change in their bill to reverse the oil shale ban.
"Matheson was unwavering in his efforts," Hoyer said. "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."
But Schweiger, with the National Wildlife Federation, wrote members that Matheson's provision is a big mistake. "Oil shale production is five times more carbon dioxide intensive than conventional drilling and gasoline production," he said. "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."
Democrats promoted their 290-page bill as a key step toward solving high energy prices. Republicans called it a "fraud" bill that they say will never be enacted into law and said it is designed only to allow Democrats to make an election-year claim they are doing something about energy.
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.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, was among Republicans who blasted the bill.
During debate on Monday, Bishop complained that the Democrats' energy bill "has had no hearings, no committee reviews ... (and it is) being written in secret and then presented to us at the last minute."
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