The House last Wednesday approved by a two-to-one majority the $10-11 billion lands bill on its second try, sending the measure to the White House for President Obama’s signature following a contentious, protracted debate in Congress.

The Democrat-sponsored legislation (HR 146), which cleared the House by 285-140, has drawn protests from producers. It would set aside 2 million acres in nine western states as protected wilderness, closing off further access for oil and natural gas development. The bill was brought up under a closed rule, which prevented lawmakers from offering amendments and required a simple majority for passage.

The House leadership was unsuccessful when it brought the lands bill to the floor earlier this month under the suspension calendar, with the final tally (282-144) falling two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill under the suspension calendar (see NGI, March 16). House leaders had offered the bill under the suspension calendar to block amendments. But thanks to what one observer called the “procedural gymnastics” in the Senate, the House did not have to go that route on its second try.

The victory in the House came about a week after the Senate, by 77-20, moved the omnibus lands bill a second time, refashioning the bill along the way to help the House get it past procedural hurdles there (see NGI, March 23).

In a “Dear Colleague” message last Tuesday Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, urged Republicans to block the bill. He claimed that the lands measure was “largely a product of closed-door deal-making” by the Democrats, and would cordon off millions of acres from energy development.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the chief sponsor of the lands bill, called it “one of the most sweeping conservation laws that Congress has passed in many, many years.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, backed the measure as well. “I believe that we, as a nation, can maximize the development of our domestic energy resources while protecting our nation’s other natural resources and wilderness.”

But while many in Congress and the Obama administration cheered passage of the lands bill, producers saw it as their worst nightmare. “The House’s unfortunate passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act is a step in the wrong direction for our economy and our energy future. This legislation makes it harder to responsibly develop oil and natural gas resources on federal lands, and limits a main driver of economic growth: American energy production,” said Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). “As our economy continues to struggle, the last thing we need is a self-imposed, unnecessary obstacle to recovery,” he said.

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.

The bill would bar oil and gas drilling in a portion of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming. It also includes 92 National Wild and Scenic River designations covering 1,100 miles that would prohibit any pipeline or transmission crossing, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a major critic of the lands bill. The Taunton River in Massachusetts was among the rivers designated as wild and scenic, which poses another obstacle for the Weaver’s Cove liquefied natural gas terminal proposed for Fall River, MA.

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.”

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