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Senate Punts Omnibus Lands Bill to Next Year

The oil and natural gas industry breathed a sigh of relief last Monday when Senate leaders said they would not consider the $3 billion omnibus lands bill during the lame-duck session. But the relief may be short-lived because they plan to take up the legislation, which would close access to millions of acres of public lands for energy exploration and other activities, when the new Congress convenes in January.

"Sen. [Robert] Bennett (R-UT) and I have made a decision that rather than move forward on the lands package, which is hundreds of bills that are so important to a lot of people, a lot of senators and certainly a lot of people around the country, that we're better off waiting until we come back in...January. Sen. Bennett and I believe we'll have more votes then and [it will be] easier to do at that time," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

"We've been told if we brought it up today that there would be a requirement to read that bill [1,000-plus pages]. It would take more than 24 hours to do that. It's obvious that likely there would not be [enough] votes for that," he said. "I think...discretion is the better part of valor and we will alert everyone that we will do this when we get back."

The lands bill was expected to be a top item on the Senate's post-election, lame-duck agenda, but it was shoved aside by economic issues -- namely a bailout for the auto industry. However, lawmakers left town last week without taking substantive action on anything.

"The American people want Congress to address our economic crisis, not erect new barriers to energy exploration and reward special interests in their states," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a major critic of the lands measure. He has pledged to block any attempt to pass the lands bill by voice vote, CQ Today reported.

Citing estimates from the Interior Department, Coburn noted that one of the bills (S. 2229) to be included in the omnibus lands package would take about 8.8 Tcf of natural gas and 300 million bbl of oil out of production in Wyoming.

The measure includes more than 150 bills that would create/expand a number of wilderness areas; establish new conservation areas; create/add to wild and scenic designations; designate new national scenic trails; and add new national and historic park units and nearly a dozen new national heritage areas, said the Western Business Roundtable, a group of oil, natural gas and coal producers and electric companies that are opposed to the legislation. The bill has been offered as an amendment to a separate wilderness bill (HR 5151).

In a warning sent out earlier this month, Britt Weygandt of the roundtable said that "this package would create more than a million acres of wilderness, restrict the development of energy resources on various federal lands, and place hundreds of thousands of acres under new or enhanced federal control and further restrict many forms of use and access to public lands."

Not only that, the roundtable said the bill would lock in the Clinton administration-inspired "National Landscape Conservation System" within the Bureau of Land Management by giving federal land managers the ability to alter the long-standing multiple-use management philosophy of the agency in favor of one that stresses "conserve, protect, restore" above all other purposes.

States that would be most impacted by the legislation would be Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon/Washington, Utah and Wyoming, according to the roundtable.

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