House Panel Passes Bill to Streamline Issuance of Air Permits for Oil Drill

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), June 2, 2011

A bill to streamline the issuance of clean-air permits for offshore oil drilling cleared an important hurdle Thursday, with the Republican-controlled U.S. House energy committee voting to approve the measure.

The legislation aims to address challenges that Shell faced in securing air permits for exploratory drilling projects off the coast of Alaska. It also marks the latest effort by Republicans to expand or expedite offshore oil production.

The bill was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 34 to 14, with the majority of Democrats voting against the measure. Democrats said the bill would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the ability to ensure clean-air standards would be met.

Thursday's committee vote clears the way for a vote on the floor of the House. While the bill would have a decent chance of passing the House, its fate in the Democrat-controlled Senate would be much more uncertain.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), imposes a six-month deadline on the EPA to either approve or deny clean-air permits being sought. It also forces opponents to object to proposed drilling projects in federal court.

Unlike drilling projects in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, where the Interior Department is responsible for granting air permits, Arctic projects require approval from the EPA.

The EPA's process for approving Clean Air Act permits for offshore drilling came into focus after Shell struggled to secure clean-air permits for drilling projects in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. Shell has spent about $3.5 billion to explore and prepare for those projects, but legal challenges and regulatory hurdles have prevented the company from obtaining necessary approvals.

"It's time to either give the permits now or stop altogether," said Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the energy committee.

In May, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, Gina McCarthy, said the agency was "very close" to issuing three permits to Shell.

No exploratory drilling is currently being done off the coast of Alaska, although there are existing wells producing oil.

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