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Senate Returns to Lands Bill to Surmount Hurdles in House

The Senate plans to take a second look at the $10 billion omnibus lands bill Monday (March 16) in an apparent attempt to get around some of the procedural hurdles that have stalled the measure in the House. The bill would take millions of acres of public lands in the West off the table for potential oil and natural gas development.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) Thursday filed cloture on a motion to proceed to consideration of HR 146, a battlefield-related bill to which the mega-lands legislation (S. 22) will be attached. A vote to limit debate on the legislation is scheduled for Monday "unless senators can reach agreement to pass it by voice vote," CQ Today reported. But the odds are against that, given that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a staunch critic of the lands bill, is likely to block any attempt at a voice vote (see NGI, Nov. 18, 2008).

If the lands bill clears the Senate, after having been passed by the chamber in January, it would be sent to the House for a second bite at the apple (see NGI, Jan. 19). The measure failed in the House (282-144) last Wednesday, falling two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill under the suspension calendar. House leaders offered the bill under the suspension calendar to avoid amendments.

The bill could clear the House on the second try if the Rules Committee agrees to a closed rule, which would ban amendments to the bill on the House floor. This would allow Democrat leaders to offer the bill under regular order, which would require only a simple majority (218 votes) for passage.

"We're going to start the process over again here [in the Senate] with some changes, and then send it back to the House. Next week we'll move HR 146 (the battlefield bill) -- a shell bill -- which is already on the calendar, so it'll come straight to the floor. What we're basically doing is passing what the House tried to pass -- we're adding the hunting-access [amendment] to our bill. The House will then add whatever it needs to pass it, and then it'll come back here [to the Senate]," said a Reid aide.

"It's tough to know" whether this strategy will succeed and the bill will clear the House, said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

"You're starting to see more and more policymakers in the House question" the lands legislation, he said. But, Naatz added, "the power of [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and the Senate Majority Leader to move legislation is very difficult to stop."

The lands package -- sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) -- combines more than 150 individual land measures, which create new wilderness designations, wild and scenic rivers, hiking trails, heritage areas, water projects and historic preservation initiatives. Naatz estimated the broad lands bill closes more than 20 million acres of public lands to oil and gas development. It's estimated that the bill would remove 331 million bbl and 8.8 Tcf in Wyoming from potential production.

"It certainly will be an uphill climb to stop this bad piece of legislation," Naatz said.

The defeat of the omnibus lands bill in the House last week was a major win for oil and gas producers, and a "victory for American energy in general," said Jim Sims, president of the Western Business Roundtable, which represents companies doing business on public lands in the West. "This bill is a bad bill for energy production across the horizon." Although it has some good provisions, he said it contains a "tremendous number of very questionable wilderness designations...We object to large omnibus lands bills in general...Few people understand what's in there until they become law."

Although the abbreviated suspension process bars amendments, Democrat leaders amended the bill to make "absolutely clear" that it would not affect existing state authority to regulate hunting, fishing and trapping on public lands. The amendment was supported by the National Rifle Association, said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. This amendment will be in the legislation that the Senate is scheduled to address on Monday (March 16).

The legislation includes 19 provisions that would withdraw federal lands from mineral leasing, such as oil, natural gas and coal exploration, said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the ranking Republican on the House natural resources panel.

Hastings called it a "monster piece of legislation," and urged Democrats and Republicans alike to oppose it. It would permanently lock up millions of acres of land, noted Rep. Paul Broun (R-CA), adding that "it is not the role of the federal government to hoard massive amounts of land."

For weeks, "Democrat leaders in the Senate and the House...have repeatedly insisted that the House must pass this massive [lands] bill without changing a single word or it will be doomed to Senate purgatory and no further action will be taken," Hastings said. Yet "Democrat leaders [used] a special...process to amend the Senate bill and simultaneously block other members from offering amendments.

"If we change one part of the bill, then this House deserves the opportunity to consider it in an open and fair manner...The suspension process of the speaker should be reserved for noncontroversial bills, with little or no cost to taxpayers," he said.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) blasted a provision in the bill that would declare the Taunton River in southeastern Massachusetts part of the Wild and Scenic River system. This designation "violates the spirit and letter of the Wild and Scenic River Act," which bars the construction of any facilities within a mile of the banks of a Wild and Scenic river. He displayed a blown-up photo of a number of buildings within close proximity to the banks of the Taunton River.

Congressional lawmakers from the Massachusetts delegation support the designation to block the construction of the highly controversial Weaver's Cove liquefied natural gas import terminal proposed for Fall River, MA (see NGI, July 21, 2008).

Bishop said he did not fault House Democrats for the lands bill. "This is a byproduct of the Senate," he noted, and it should be "ashamed."

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