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Omnibus Lands Bill Falls Short in House

House Democrats suffered a major defeat Wednesday as they failed to garner a two-thirds majority needed to pass a $10 billion omnibus lands package (S. 22) that would take millions of acres of public lands in the West off the table for potential oil and natural gas development.

House leaders brought the bill to the floor under the suspension calendar, which required the measure to capture a two-thirds majority vote in exchange for expedited consideration (no amendments and limited debate). The final vote, 282-142, fell short of meeting the higher bar. House Democrats could bring the legislation to the floor again at a later date. The Senate passed the measure in mid-January (see Daily GPI, Jan. 16).

"I think they definitely will" try to bring the bill up later, said Jim Sims, president of the Western Business Roundtable, which represents companies doing business on public lands in the West. He believes House Democrats may be able to pass the legislation by a simple majority, but that would open the bill up to amendments.

The House vote is a major win for oil and gas producers, and it's a "victory for American energy in general," Sims said. "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. Because it's been amended, the bill -- if eventually passed by the House -- would have to be returned to the Senate, where it could face procedural delays by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a leading critic of the bill (see Daily GPI, Jan. 12).

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. He estimates that the bill would withdraw 3 million acres from energy leasing and recreation use, removing 331 million bbl and 8.8 Tcf in Wyoming from potential production.

Hastings called S. 22 a "monster piece of legislation," and urged Democrats and Republicans alike to oppose it. The lands package combines more than 150 individual lands bills, which create new wilderness designations, wild and scenic rivers, hiking trails, heritage areas, water projects and historic preservation initiatives.

The bill contains a "poisonous policy" that will make it tough to get the U.S. economy back on track, Hastings said. 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 Daily GPI, July 18, 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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