Legislation that would establish “national energy security corridors” on federal lands, streamlining the right-of-way approval process for natural gas pipelines crossing National Park Service (NPS) lands by removing Congress from the process, was the subject of a hearing Thursday of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

"The National Energy Security Corridors Act will empower the Secretary of the Interior to make decisions about natural gas pipeline projects on federal lands instead of having to go through Congress every time," said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA). "By streamlining that permitting process, we'll create jobs, give a much-needed update to our energy infrastructure, and reduce power costs for families on the East Coast."

The bill would shift responsibility for approving natural gas pipelines on federal lands from congress to the Department of Interior (DOI). The nation's shale gale and a wide disparity in natural gas prices between portions of the eastern United States and other regions prompted the bill, MacArthur said.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior to designate corridors for oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities on federal lands, but "10 years later, we have exactly zero of those corridors in the eastern United States," MacArthur told the subcommittee. The bill would require DOI "to do what they should have done years ago, and that's designate at a minimum 10 energy corridors across federal lands within two years of enactment of this legislation," he said.

Currently, congressional approval is required for each natural gas pipeline project seeking right-of-way across federal land.

"Since the late ‘80s, there have been five bills to grant this approval. It should not take an act of Congress to get this done," said subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO).

Both America's Natural Gas Alliance and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America support the legislation.

But DOI isn't among the bill's supporters. Most of the authorizations in the legislation are already within the agency's purview, according to Timothy Spisak, senior adviser for energy, minerals and realty management at DOI's Bureau of Land Management.

"The department strongly opposes the bill's provisions that would authorize the Secretary to issue natural gas pipeline rights of way on NPS lands," Spisak said in testimony Thursday. Two years to designate at least 10 new eastern U.S. corridors "is too short a timeframe to adequately coordinate with states, tribes, other federal partners, and the public," he said. And DOI questions the significant role it would be given in designating corridors in the eastern United States, where it "manages very little multiple-use land and has a significantly different role than it does in the western United States.

"Furthermore, the department opposes the bill's provisions declaring that energy corridor designation and incorporation into a land use plan shall not be treated as major federal actions under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act]and that approvals are required. This NEPA waiver is unnecessary and counterproductive as it would only complicate the deliberative process necessary for the appropriate consideration of specific authorization decisions."

Some members of the subcommittee also said the bill needs an overhaul.

"It simply makes sense to identify areas that are less environmentally sensitive and have fewer land use conflicts, and to try to concentrate new pipelines or transmission lines in those areas," said Ranking Member Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). "Unfortunately, the bill we're discussing today still needs more work in order to accomplish these positive goals. We need a bill that speeds the development of well planned new pipelines, while paying attention to landowner and community concerns and protecting sensitive areas...we repeatedly pass laws to authorize pipelines through national parks, and I believe Congress should retain that responsibility."