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Lands Bill Clears Senate; House Gets Second Bite of Apple

March 23, 2009
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The Senate last Thursday voted out a $10-11 billion omnibus lands bill for a second time after deflecting several attempts by a leading Republican opponent to significantly alter the contentious legislation. The House is expected to take up the lands bill again this week, hoping for better results the second time around.

The amended bill, which cleared by 77-20, would take millions of acres of public lands in the West off the table for potential oil and natural gas development, according to producers. The Senate last week brought to the floor a battlefield protection bill (HR 146) to act as the legislative vehicle for the broad lands package. It then replaced HR 146 -- which the House already passed -- with the text of the lands bill, including a House amendment addressing gun possession on public lands.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a staunch critic of the measure, reached an agreement with Democratic leadership that allowed him to offer six amendments to the lands bill. Five of the amendments were defeated in short order, but the Senate last Thursday approved by voice vote one amendment that halts the criminalization of taking rocks or stones by visitors to federal lands.

This is the second time that the lands bill has been before the Senate. The Senate initially passed the measure (S 22) in January after overcoming several hurdles (see NGI, Jan. 19). The Senate took up the bill a second time as part of a strategy to get the measure past some procedural obstacles in the House.

The Senate's action "make[s] it more likely" that the lands legislation will clear the House, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chief sponsor of the lands package.

The measure failed in the House (282-144) earlier this month, falling two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill under the suspension calendar (see NGI, March 16). House leaders offered the bill under the suspension calendar to prevent Republicans from offering amendments to the legislation.

The House could clear the amended bill from the Senate as early as this week, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) told CQ Today. And because the House has already passed the underlying battlefield protection legislation, the House leadership can bring up the bill under the regular calendar, which would require only a simple majority (218 votes) for passage, it noted.

The question now is whether the "procedural gymnastics" of Senate and House leaders will work, said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The lands package 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 that 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. The bill also includes 92 National Wild and Scenic River designations covering 1,100 miles that would prohibit any pipeline or transmission crossing, according to Coburn.

Bingaman dismissed arguments that the lands bill will hamper domestic oil and gas development. "Some contend that the wilderness and national park and wild and scenic river and other conservation designations will frustrate our nation's ability to develop new domestic energy supplies. I strongly disagree. We've gone to great lengths to assess the energy potential of the new areas, and in almost all cases the Bureau of Land Management's concluded [that] the wilderness areas do not have significant energy development potential."

He noted that his committee hopes to soon bring a comprehensive energy bill to the Senate floor, which he says would promote programs to expand the development of domestic energy resources.

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