House Dems Would Reverse Interior on Drilling, Rights-of-Way Rules

House Democrats intend to take aim at recent Interior Department actions on natural gas drilling and rights-of-way claims in the Rocky Mountains, if and when the Interior appropriations bill hits the floor.

The fiscal 2008 spending bill, H.R. 2643, may not make it to the floor this week as planned, but lawmakers on both sides are already gearing up for debate on several key policy issues.

Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) plans to bring the debate over Western rights-of-way to the floor with an amendment that would prevent local or state governments from claiming federal lands under provisions of the 1866 mining law known as R.S. 2477.

The law allows states to claim rights-of-way that existed before land was designated as federal property, but environmentalists fear the law will be used to increase motor vehicle use and degrade environmental protections on federal lands.

Udall offered a similar amendment in 2003, but then-House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee Chairman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), supported by former Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), successfully added a second-degree amendment limiting the Udall language to national monuments, national parks, Wilderness Study Areas, national wildlife refuges and lands within the National Wildlife Preservation System, allowing claims in other public lands (Land Letter, July 24, 2003).

"Taylor's no longer chairman and Pombo's no longer chairman, so it's a whole new world on the issue," said Kristen Brengel of the Wilderness Society.

Udall's amendment would also address a last-minute policy change from Interior Secretary Gale Norton just before she resigned in March 2006 that allows counties to perform maintenance on roads and trails on federal lands, something critics say will lead to dubious rights-of-way claims (Greenwire, March 22, 2006).

The Bureau of Land Management is considering 12 claims under the Norton policy in California, Colorado and Utah. "For most of these routes, the counties claiming them want to open them up to off-road vehicle routes, even if there's no trace of it on the ground," Brengel said. Oil, oil shale and gas

When the bill hits the House floor, Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) will return with amendments to authorize natural gas and oil drilling on the outer continental shelf.

One amendment would allow natural gas-only drilling beyond 25 miles offshore, while a second amendment would allow oil and gas drilling 100 miles offshore. "We have those locked and loaded," said Peterson spokesman Travis Windle.

Both amendments failed in committee.

Separately, Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.) is teaming up with Udall on an amendment that would overturn a recent BLM decision allowing natural gas drilling atop Colorado's Roan Plateau.

The plan would allow up to 1,570 new natural gas wells on Roan Plateau as early as next year. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association claims the plateau could hold 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to power 4 million homes for the next 20 years (Greenwire, June 11).

A third Udall amendment would prohibit the use of federal funds to issue commercial oil shale leases on public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The 2005 Energy Policy Act required an oil shale environmental study to occur simultaneously with research development leases and grants for oil shale and tar sands on public lands.

Rep. Nick Rahall's (D-W.Va.) energy bill includes a provision that would eliminate the deadline for completing the environmental analysis and provides additional time to develop proposed leasing regulations.

Tongass, PILT

The House is also facing a debate over logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, as Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) plan to reintroduce their amendment to block new logging roads in the 17 million acre forest.

Environmentalists and taxpayer advocates say the roadbuilding program in the Tongass is a money-loser that costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually, while opponents say the amendment would drastically harm the timber industry in southeast Alaska. The House has approved the amendment two of the past three years, but the provision has never become law (E&E Daily, June 11).

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and the Congressional Western Caucus are working on amendments to add more funds to the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, aides say. The bill would currently provide $233 million for PILT, even with last year. The figure is $43 million above the administration request, but $100 million below the "full funding" level.

Members have not settled on exact proposed offsets to increase PILT funding, but past efforts have included cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, which is included in the Interior and Environment spending bill.

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