House Natural Resources panel plans trio of offshore hearings

The US House Natural Resources Committee will hold three hearings on Feb. 11, 24 and 25 to examine offshore oil and gas issues. They will be the first of the 111th Congress and begin at 10 a.m.

Feb. 11, 24 and 25: The US House Natural Resources Committee will hold three hearings to examine offshore oil and gas issues. These will be the first such sessions of the 111th Congress, and the committee has scheduled three of them to hear witnesses having decidedly different points of view. The first hearing, on Feb. 11, will discuss "environmental and commercial perspectives"; the second, on Feb. 24, state perspectives, and the third, on Feb. 25, "industrial perspectives". Witnesses have not been announced for any of the sessions, each of which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. in Longworth House Office Building Room 1324.

Why it matters: Committee chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) led floor debate on the House Democratic leadership's so-called offshore access bill last fall which actually would have imposed heavy restrictions on leasing (such as no leasing at all within the first 50 miles off coasts of states which don't have offshore oil and gas activity already, no provisions for states to share in federal revenues from new offshore leases, and requirements for adjacent coastal states to approving any new leasing). The bill passed the House but was not taken up by the Senate.

These hearings will provide an initial look at Rahall's frame of mind as he prepares new offshore leasing legislation after public outcry last summer compelled then-US President George W. Bush to remove presidential OCS withdrawals and the 110th Congress to allow leasing moratoriums which had been in place for more than 20 years to expire on Sept. 30. The constituencies which pressed so hard for the bans (coastal property owners, environmental organizations and tourism interests) still have heavy clout, but pro-leasing groups are trying to maintain momentum from last year. It won't be easy: The record crude oil prices of last summer which led to removal of the bans are way down. Leasing proponents will need to emphasize jobs which will be created, local government services which will be funded, and other economic benefits.

One of their fiercest advocates is gone from the committee: Stevan Pearce (R-NM), who sometimes seemed to be trying to act like a one-man truth squad when he questioned hearing witnesses opposed to oil and gas activity, did not run for re-election to the House and lost in his bid to succeed retiring US Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) in 2008. The committee also has a new ranking minority member, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). His predecessor, Don Young (R-Alas.), did not seek another term in that capacity but remains on the committee.

Pro-leasing groups also have an ally in Neil Abercrombie (D-Hi.), who co-sponsored bills over several sessions with then-US Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.) to lift the OCS leasing bans. There also are a few moderates among the committee's other Democrats, and several members who outright oppose expanding federal OCS oil and gas leasing, including Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jay Inslee (Wash.), Lois Capps (Calif.) and Maurice D. Hinchey (NY).

The hearings almost certainly will be lively. The main question before they begin is whether the House's next OCS bill will actually originate in this committee or come directly out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office as was the case in 2008. Offshore leasing proponents are hoping for the former; Pelosi recruited her new energy policy advisor, Karen Wayland, from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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