By Audrey Hudson
Republican lawmakers from Colorado have authored legislation that would encourage energy production on public lands to boost the region's economy and job market and ease an increasingly heavy burden on the consumer's wallet.
"Americans shouldn't be forced to make summer vacation plans based on the prices at the pump," said Rep. Doug Lamborn. "These bills are an important step toward bringing down gasoline prices and giving hard working families a much needed break from the Obama no-energy agenda."
The "Federal Lands Jobs and Energy and Security Act" sponsored by Lamborn would streamline the permitting process to remove some of the obstacles to drilling on public lands as well as oil shale development.
Additionally, Rep. Scott Tipton has written the "Planning for American Energy Act" directing the Interior secretary to set four-year goals to produce natural resources as well as alternative energy on public lands.
Lamborn chaired the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and minerals hearing Wednesday to consider these and other bills.
In an unusual move, Democrats who oppose the Colorado lawmakers' bills called a witness from the lawmakers' home state to testify against the measures.
James Spehar, the former mayor of Grand Junction and a past president of the Colorado Municipal League, suggested the legislation would block recreational uses and disrupt the quality of life for those who live near or use public lands.
"These bills appear to prioritize energy development over other uses of our public lands, upending the multiple-use philosophy and potentially threatening other important local jobs in agriculture, tourism and outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing and other multi-million dollar economic drivers that also rely on federal lands," Spehar told the panel.
"The risk is that we ultimately end up swapping an existing job in historic and less cyclical industries for a new one in an industry known for uncertainty, thus creating a less stable long-term local economy," Spehar said.
Tipton challenged Spehar's statement and asked that he point out specifically in the legislation where energy development was prioritized over other uses.
Spehar backed away from his comment and said, "I'm certain it's not your intent."
"The tone of it seems to elevate energy development above some of the other important economic drivers that we have," Spehar said.
Tipton said that if the legislation does not specifically say any uses should be prioritized, the law would not assume to do so. However, Tipton's language does specifically require that a balanced approach be applied.
"We do not circumvent any of the (environmental) process, the balanced approach for the (Bureau of Land Management), it's simply to be able to responsibly develop these resources and to be able to get people back to work in our area," Tipton said.
Noting that Grand Junction has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, Tipton added, "I know you understand the importance of that."
Tipton's bill would require that energy sources include wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, oil, natural gas, coal, oil shale and minerals.
Jack Ekstrom, vice president of Whiting Petroleum Corporation, a Denver-based energy production company, said the lawmakers bills were "fundamental to job creation."
"Without question, it will dramatically improve the job outlook in this country," Ekstrom said.
The federal government controls millions of acres of public land in the western mountains that are ripe for oil and gas development, he said.
But Ekstrom said his company is experiencing unreasonable delays up to 300 days for drilling permits in numerous areas, including the Pawnee Grasslands in Weld County. Comparatively, he said it takes state regulators on average 40 days to approve a permit.
"The unmistakable conclusion is that the prosperity, the jobs, the harvest of domestic resources -- from unconventional oil and gas plays, enhanced recovery projects and technology breakthroughs to come -- can only be realized to their potential by mandating the Department of the Interior devise and publicize a plan to: encourage development, provide leasing certainty and streamline oil and gas permitting," Ekstrom said.
The Obama administration says it is doing everything possible to promote the development of conventional and renewable energy development, but Lamborn says their actions show otherwise.
"The administration has repeatedly canceled lease sales, added additional lease terms and stipulations after a lease has been issued, and taken months, if not years to issue (applications or permits to drill)," Lamborn said.
"We all remember one of the first actions of this administration was to revoke dozens of leases after they had been fairly won and issued. Further, the administration has made lease terms for oil shale development so adverse to development they have received a minimal number of bids on the oil shale lease sales they have held," Lamborn said.
Lamborn's bill would create timelines for federal officials to approve applications and issue permits, and require the government to lease at least one quarter of available land.
In Colorado, 220,000 acres were set aside for leases in 2010, yet only 5,000 acres were actually leased.
"While the administration claims they are moving forward with a robust competitive leasing program, the facts tell us the opposite," Lamborn said.