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Political Agenda Includes Revision of Endangered Species and Environmental Policy Acts

Just when you thought you could forget about Washington, DC for a while, the resources industry's political representatives are rallying the troops for successive rounds in the public arena involving, among other things, putting holes in the offshore drilling moratorium, ensuring funding and implementation of oil and gas programs in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and reforming two 30-year-old laws, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The most immediate item appears to be legislation allowing coastal states to pursue their own destiny and revenues and opt out of the congressional moratorium on drilling off the U.S. East and West Coasts. This is likely to surface after Labor Day when the Congress comes back to consider the budget reconciliation legislation. The states' rights proponents are hoping they will be able to reconcile more than just the budget in that bill. The American Gas Association started its drive in support of the legislation Tuesday (see related story).

The other short term focus is on implementation of the new energy law, according to Jim Sims, executive vice president of Partnership for the West. "The legislative sausage factory has completed its job," Sims told attendees at the recent Colorado Oil & Gas Association meeting. And it has produced a law requiring 270 rulemakings and studies from 17 different agencies. It's important now to "see the law is implemented correctly,"he said.

Sims listed initiatives in the law for the oil and gas industry, singling out as most important the mandate for an Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) inventory, royalty relief if commodity prices drop, ultra-deep offshore well incentives, the exemption for oil and gas well frac'ing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and better agency coordination in permitting. Regarding the last initiative, Sims pointed to a pilot project in the West with the goal of streamlining the federal permit process. It will be formulated by the relevant federal agencies and the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Each agency is to have "pilot offices" to allow a one-stop permit program.

It appears some agencies had been making advance preparations for the long-awaited passage of the energy act. The ink was barely dry when the Interior Department started its initiative to inventory resources off the coasts and possibly modify its leasing program.

Next up on the political plate will be a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), Sims said. He is "very bullish" that bipartisan ESA reform will pass through the Congress this fall, or if not this year, then next. "This is well along the path; the critical mass is already formed. This is going forward very strongly."

While its bipartisan credentials may be a little iffy, the ESA initiative currently being drafted is bicameral, with a working group announced last February, led by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-CA, Blanche Lincoln, D-AR and Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water, and Reps. Richard Pombo, R-CA, who chairs the House Resources Committee, and Greg Walden, R-OR.

Support for new legislation is coming mainly from westerners, both surface landowners and those seeking mineral rights, who claim the operation of the law is far more costly than Congress originally intended and is misdirected and driven by lawsuits rather than by scientific evaluations of species and effective programs.

The House Resources Committee website features an extensive, in-depth report on the operation of the ESA prepared for the committee. Its recommendations include forming a meaningful distinction between threatened and endangered species based on more rigorous criteria, and increasing the focus on relatively more unique animals and plants. The delisting mechanism should be simplified; some species listed on the basis of erroneous data or which already are extinct should be delisted, the report says.

In addition, it recommends that data for the report to Congress and individual species expenditure reports should be made available in an online searchable electronic format to help Congress review the program and increase public accessibility to the information. Economic impact assessments conducted in association with critical habitat designations should be consistently available and easier to locate online. There also should be better reporting of total funds, federal, state and private, spent carrying out ESA projects, according to the report.

The Resources Committee website also has a clickthrough to the Task Force for Improving the National Environmental Policy Act. Pombo announced the creation of the NEPA task force last April with Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-WA) in charge. She has conducted task force hearings so far in Washington state, Arizona and Texas.

Reform of NEPA, which was passed in 1970, "is not quite as far along as ESA," Sims said. It could take several years, but "you're going to see a ground swell of support for improving and streamlining NEPA. Virtually every American citizen has a story of how NEPA has caused them pain. A critical mass is forming on NEPA reform."

With NEPA, elimination of overlapping laws and agency jurisdictions and coordination is a major focus. As it stands, the law is obstructing both good and bad development, Sims said. "It's just good government. They ought to be able to give folks an answer -- yes or no -- not years and years of maybe." There should be a lead agency and joint planning processes, public hearings, environmental impact statements and a single deadline applicable to all parties. As it is some agencies govern surface rights and infringements and others govern the subsurface.

Government needs to "wake up and work efficiently," instead of unnecessarily slow and kill development, Sims said. Additionally, his group would like to see the appropriate weight given to entities most directly affected in NEPA proceedings.

"For example, you can have a San Francisco-based organization come in and air its concerns in Wyoming...We believe you should allow local entities directly affected by projects to have more weight than some big environmental group in San Francisco." There also should be some economic analysis and a quantification of the potential affect of a NEPA ruling on the nation's energy security, Sims said.

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