In a move lawmakers hope will streamline the pipeline permitting process and provide additional natural gas to the East Coast, the House Committee on Natural Resources passed a bill Thursday granting the secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) the power to negotiate rights-of-way for gas pipelines through national park lands.

The bill -- HR 2295, also known as the National Energy Security Corridors Act -- passed the committee by a 21-15 vote, along nearly partisan lines. Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) broke ranks with the Democrats and joined 20 Republicans in voting for the bill.

HR 2295, which was sponsored by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), calls for amending the Mineral Leasing Act. It gives the DOI secretary the authority to "identify and designate suitable National Energy Security Corridors...for natural gas transmission facilities, and incorporate such corridors into the relevant agency land use and resources management plans or equivalent plans." If the bill is enacted into law, the DOI secretary would also face a two-year deadline to identify at least 10 such corridors.

Under the bill, a right-of-way application would need to be approved within one year of the date of receipt. State governors may also submit a request to the DOI secretary to designate a corridor on federal land within that state.

The committee also agreed, through a voice vote, to an amendment by MacArthur. Among other things, the amendment states that all right-of-way applications must adhere to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

"It clarifies that the governors in each state are not limited to the number of corridors that they can request on federal lands in their state," MacArthur said Thursday of his amendment. "It clarifies that there is no NEPA exemption in this bill. Instead all significant environmental analysis is conducted when a company actually chooses to use the corridor and builds a pipeline on that corridor.

"We need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. There is no reason to do NEPA twice, especially if the parcels of federal land go unused, and therefore are untouched."

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) then introduced an amendment to strike the DOI secretary's authority to designate a corridor on national park lands. He said there were currently 63 existing pipeline crossings along the Appalachian Trail, and that 60 of them did not require congressional approval."

"Clearly, the trail is not a burden to pipeline construction," Beyer said. He added that in 1973, "Congress specifically exempted national park service lands to ensure that our parks had an extra level of protection.

"Congress made it clear then that congressional approval should be required before pipelines can be placed in national parks. This extra level of protection for our parks is just as appropriate now as it was 40 years ago. With the tremendous growth of energy-related pipelines and natural gas, roads, well pads, the need for additional protections is even greater today."

But Republicans quickly fired back. "This is really a common sense, good piece of legislation," said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO). "You don't want Congress being a local land use agency. We just don't have the time and ability to timely pass siting bills. It is an outmoded relic of the past that we should not adhere to today.

"There are places, unfortunately, in the Northeast that have really high energy prices. Parts of the Northeast pay an arm and a leg for natural gas. This amendment would gut the bill."

MacArthur concurred. "We're talking about 10 predefined corridors that are environmentally sound, subject to public review [and] carefully defined," he said. "The idea that this is some careless planting of pipelines is simply not accurate. This is about moving forward in a sound, environmentally-sensitive energy policy.

"We're not going to power our country on fairy dust. It's time for us to use God-given resources, including natural gas, and you cannot do that in the eastern United States, if you have the great wall of the Appalachian Trail cutting off pipelines in half the country."

Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) added that the DOI's National Park Service has told lawmakers that the service is incapable of making decisions on pipeline corridors.

"The [underlying bill] comes up with a process that is full of scrutiny and very safe and effective and efficient," Bishop said. "If we pass the [Beyer] amendment, we're actually turning this process over to senators. You expect a senator to do anything in a timely manner? That's the biggest problem with the amendment."

The Beyer amendment failed on a 23-15 vote.

"Congress should not be in the position of permitting individual pipelines, yet that is the case under current law," said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. "This legislation is premised on the idea that the DOI is capable of making balanced and responsible choices with respect to the lands it manages, and that natural gas pipelines should be treated like other infrastructure."

Last month, backers of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that they had received nearly 28,000 comments for its project, a 550-mile natural gas pipeline that would cross the Appalachian Trail and traverse West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina (see Daily GPI, May 18). Dominion Transmission Inc., Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources are backing the $4.5 billion project, which was announced last year (see Daily GPI, Oct. 31, 2014; Sept. 2, 2014).