Bills to permanently block oil exploration off West Coast introduced

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Ocean waters near Heceta Head lighthouse in Oregon would be among those protected from fossil fuel exploration activity if a bill introduced by West Coast senators becomes law. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

California’s senior U.S. senator has introduced a bill that would permanently block fossil fuel exploration on the outer continental shelf along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

The measure, sponsored by veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was introduced Jan. 4.

In her comments on the Senate floor on the day she introduced S.31 Feinstein highlighted the huge economic impact of coastal counties in California, explaining that they produce 80 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, and said the likely close proximity of any drilling to the beaches makes offshore energy exploration too dangerous.

“The fact is that those of us on the Pacific coast do not want any further offshore oil or gas development,” Feinstein said.

Wildlife conservation concerns are a powerful argument against energy exploration off the Pacific Coast. Among the marine animals that may be adversely affected by oil and natural gas drilling are a variety of sea birds and fish, orcas, otters, salmon, seals, sea lions, and migratory whale species (including blue whales).

Those wildlife resources have previously been harmed by oil extraction in the Pacific.

In 1969 a spill near Santa Barbara polluted the Pacific Ocean with about 3.36 million gallons of crude. That incident remains the most severe oil spill in California’s history and the third-most severe spill in American history.

The Santa Barbara oil spill killed thousands of sea birds and many dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. The mortality rate among small marine organisms in the inter-tidal zone was as high as 90 percent.

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This graphic shows the extent of ocean and beach area impacted by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Map courtesy Wikimedia.

Despite the warning provided by the Santa Barbara oil spill, there are still 24 oil drilling platforms operating in ocean areas off the California coast.

In 1994 the Golden State’s legislature largely  precluded any future drilling leases in the six kilometer-wide band of Pacific waters under its regulatory control. The California Coastal Sanctuary Act allows leasing only if the “State Lands Commission determines that oil and gas deposits contained in tidelands are being drained by means of wells upon adjacent federal lands and leasing of the tidelands for oil or gas production is in the best interest of the State.”

The California State Senate passed a bill in 2015 that would have permanently banned all oil leases off the state’s coast. S.B. 788 was not considered by the state’s General Assembly (a body akin to the House of Representatives in most other states).

California’s State Lands Commission had stopped authorizing nearly all new leases after the Santa Barbara spill.

No fossil fuel exploration in waters of the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast subject to the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act has occurred since 1981. Congress included bans on leasing off California’s coast, as well as offshore of several East Coast states, in annual appropriations bills until 2008.

U.S. Presidents also included California’s (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) coastal waters in exclusions from leasing included in executive orders. Presidents George H.W. Bush, in June 1990, and William J. Clinton, in June 1998, imposed a ban through 2012.

President George W. Bush lifted that ban by revoking those executive orders on July 14,  2008. He also said that he would veto any bill that continued the practice of banning leases off the coast of California and several other states.

President Barack Obama’s administration has returned to the long-time practice of keeping energy exploration activities away from California’s coast. The most recent five-year leasing plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management precludes any leasing off the Pacific coast of the continental U.S. between 2017-2022.

The factors weighing against energy exploration off the coasts of Oregon and Washington are largely the same as in California.

According to one 2015 report, Oregon’s rural coast region had more than 21,000 jobs directly dependent on tourism, which also generated more than $1.8 billion in economic activity in that part of the state.

As for fishing, the value of the Beaver State’s commercial onshore fisheries was more than $136 million in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, while spending on recreational fishing in coastal counties exceeded $68 million in 2014.

Washington’s coastal economy is similarly dependent on tourism and fishing. In 2011 tourism and recreation contributed about $3.4 billion to the Evergreen State’s “ocean economy,” while fishing is responsible for at least 16,000 jobs and half of billion dollars of economic activity in Washington.

Pacific waters off the coasts of the two northwestern states have not generally been considered likely to produce significant oil resources. In 1964 the Department of Interior issued leases for 2,400 square kilometers of ocean areas off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Oil companies drilled 13 test wells before those leases expired in 1969.

In 1977 the Department of Interior ranked Oregon and Washington as being lowest among all potential lease areas in the country for “resource potential.” That assessment was essentially confirmed by a 2009 report by Environment America and Sierra Club, which concluded that the amount of oil and natural gas off the Oregon and Washington coasts is “miniscule.”

“The planning area is estimated to contain (i.e., undiscovered economically recoverable resource) approximately 0.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at recent price estimates, representing about 0.6% of total OCS resources for both oil and gas. At recent prices and usage, the oil and natural gas economically available from the Washington/Oregon planning area could supply the nation with 15 days of oil and 20 days of natural gas with a value of $26 billion.”

Oregon and Washington have nevertheless moved to toughen their laws on offshore energy development.

In 2007 Oregon imposed a three-year moratorium on new exlporatory activity and then, in 2010, extended it for 10 more  years.

Washington law forbids marine oil exploration only in the area “extending from mean high tide seaward three miles along the Washington coast from Cape Flattery south to Cape Disappointment, nor in Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia river downstream from the Longview bridge . . .”

Feinstein’s co-sponsors include all of the senators representing the three west coast states covered by her bill: Democrats Kamala Harris of California, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington.

The California senator’s effort to ban drilling off the Pacific coast is not the first attempt she has made. She has introduced similar bills in several previous Congresses. Nor is her bill the first Pacific coast state oil drilling ban to be co-sponsored by West Coast senators.

S.31 has been assigned to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee for consideration. Cantwell and Wyden are members of that committee.

Similar legislation, known as the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Democrat Jared Huffman of California and 13 co-sponsors. They include California Democratic Reps. John Garamendi, Derek Kilmer, Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Doris Matsui, Jimmy Panetta, Scott Peters, Jackie Speier, Eric Swalwell, and Mike Thompson, Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, and Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene.

 

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House of Representatives clears REINS Act

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The Republican-dominated 115th Congress has launched an assault on the federal government’s system of regulation. A bill passed by the House of Representatives on Jan. 5 would require Congress to approve all administrative rules, including those that limit pollution. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Republicans eager to take a wrecking ball to the system of administrative law in place for seven decades have moved the second of three bills central to that effort through the U.S. House of Representatives.

The majority GOP pushed through the proposed “Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” Thursday on a 237-187 vote.

Before doing so legislators adopted several amendments, including one by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that subjects all existing regulations to the requirements that would be imposed by the bill and another by Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., that would require agencies to offset the costs of new regulations by repealing or amending those already in effect.

The House rejected Democratic amendments that would exempt regulations that affect children’s health, protect public health and safety, reduce the concentration of lead in drinking water, and assure the safety of children’s toys.

Affecting most regulations issued by federal agencies that might cost business at least $100 million per year in compliance costs, and establishing a 70-day period in which Congress either approves the rule or renders it void, the bill flips on its head the system by which Presidents and their appointees have administered statutes since the 1940s.

Under current law a regulation is valid unless Congress nullifies it, something that is possible to do but rarely accomplished.The existing system of law that governs the way in which all agencies write regulations also provides safeguards to assure that public opinion and appropriate commercial, scientific, or technical information is considered by agencies. The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, provides for comment periods and required time intervals between proposed and final regulations. Judicial review of regulations is also available in most cases.

By delegating rulemaking to agencies staffed by professional civil service members, Congress has traditionally recognized that those federal government institutions and employees are better suited to write regulations that can often be technical in nature and involve extensive development of a factual record.

H.R. 26 reverses that longstanding approach and instead mandates that Congress, the most politically attuned entity of the federal government, deliberate and decide on the appropriateness or necessity of a regulation.

The bill would also severely limit the time available to Congress to accomplish the task. Aside from the 70-day approval limit, H.R. 26 would also limit the time of debate for any rule under consideration.

Given that it is not unusual for an administration to propose more regulations than there are legislative days in a Congressional session, it is likely that Congress would not be able to keep up with the flow of requests to approve new regulations.

Some critics say that H.R. 26 also sets up a potential constitutional crisis.

First, the measure might constitute an invasion by Congress of the President’s authority to “faithfully execute the laws,” as demanded by Article 2 of the Constitution.

Second, H.R. 26 would establish a form of a legal device called the legislative veto, which the Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional. As explained by Professor Ronald M. Levin of Washington University in St. Louis, an expert on administrative law:

“The problem with the REINS Act is that, with regard to major rules, it would accomplish virtually the same result as the “traditional” one-house veto—namely, it would enable a single house of Congress to nullify an agency rule, regardless of the wishes of the other house, let alone the President. The question, then, is whether the Supreme Court would accept what amounts to a 180 degree change of direction if the one-house veto were repackaged in a different format, even though the risks of unchecked action by the legislative branch would be as great in the later version as in the earlier one. My suggestion is that it would not.”
Other constitutional law scholars have disagreed with this perspective, but at minimum the issue of the validity of the REINS Act would set off a long litigation battle that might pit a current or future President against Congress.

Finally, as David Goldston, a historian and former Congressional staff member now affiliated with Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote Jan. 4, it is possible a federal court would order a regulation to be issued by an agency even as Congress refuses to approve that regulation.

Under the Constitution, a court presumably can’t require Congress to act, so the statute could not be enforced,” Goldston wrote. “But it also would not actually have been repealed.”

The GOP’s first assault on the regulatory system during the 115th Congress came Jan. 4 as H.R. 21, the so-called Midnight Rules Relief Act, cleared the House of Representatives. That bill would give Congress the power to revoke, in one fell swoop, most regulations finalized by the Obama administration since May 2016.

A Senate version of the “Midnight Rules Relief Act” has been referred to that chamber’s Government Affairs and Homeland Security Committee. A militant regulation skeptic, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairs that committee.

Legislators in the U.S. Senate will also consider the proposed REINS Act. S.21 was introduced on Jan. 4 and is sponsored by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and 27 other senators.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has said that he will sign the proposed REINS Act if it reaches his desk.

The last bill in the Republicans’ anti-regulatory triumvirate is H.R. 5, which is styled as the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017.”

That measure would increase the procedural hurdles to rulemaking and forbid federal judges from deferring, in some circumstances, to agency interpretations of statutes.

Republicans waste no time in re-introducing “Midnight Rules Relief Act”

Republicans intent on erasing regulations finalized in the last months of the Obama administration have already introduced legislation in the 115th Congress that could lead to a wholesale rejection of agency actions since May 2016.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced the proposed “Midnight Rules Relief Act” on Tuesday, which was opening day for the new Congress.

The bill would permit Congress to void, by joint resolution, to cast aside multiple regulations in one fell swoop. Regulations would have to be deemed economically “significant” to be subjected to the nullification procedure.

The text of Issa’s bill was not available at the time this post was published. If H.R. 21 resembles similar legislation considered during the 114th Congress, it would apply to regulations finalized during the last six months of a President’s term.

An agency would be permanently barred from again creating any regulation blocked by a joint resolution unless Congress granted permission.

In that sense, the Midnight Rules Relief Act proposal represents a radical shift from existing doctrines of administrative law, which require Congress to attempt erasure of regulations on a one-by-one basis.

Among the regulations that could be eliminated if the Midnight Rules Relief Act clears both chambers of Congress and is signed by President-elect Donald J. Trump after his Jan. 20 inauguration are 19 Environmental Protection Agency rules, 13 Department of Energy rules, and 10 Department of Interior rules.

Under the Congressional Review Act, which was enacted in 1996, Congress can use a joint resolution to eliminate most regulations adopted within a period of about eight months before a new President is inaugurated.

While more than 100 attempts to exorcise regulations through the CRA have been made, only one has succeeded.

Congress can also stamp out regulations by specifying in appropriations bills that they are unenforceable or by amending the statutes that provide authority for the regulations.

The House of Representatives approved an earlier version of the Midnight Rules Relief Act last November.

UPDATE, Jan. 4, 2017, 9:00 pm MST: The House of Representatives passed H.R. 21 Wednesday on a 238-184 vote, according to The Hill. Legislators rejected a Democratic attempt to send the bill back to committee.

UPDATE, Jan. 5, 2017, 5:26 pm MST: Four Democrats voted for H.R. 21 Wednesday night. They are Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. No Republican opposed the bill.

House to vote on Senate-passed KXL bill next week

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote next week on whether to adopt the KXL pipeline bill approved by the Senate.

The chamber’s majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced Tuesday his intention to move the controversial proposal to President Barack Obama’s desk.

“Next week we will take up the Keystone pipeline as passed by the Senate and send it to the President’s desk,” McCarthy said during a press conference.

If the House, as expected, passes S.1 without changes, then Obama will soon be in a position to impose a promised veto of the legislation.

Senate votes approval of KXL pipeline bill

The U.S. Senate approved Thursday the contentious bill to cut the President out of the process of deciding whether to authorize the KXL oil pipeline.

The vote followed two more days dedicated, in part, to debate on a series of amendments to the bill.

Nearly all of those amendments failed to reach the 60-vote threshold for adoption.

Senators voted on about a dozen amendments this week, following a successful filibuster of S.1 by minority Democrats late last week, and several of them implicated the nation’s environmental policy:

  • proposal by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., to assure that communities along the pipeline route are notified of the risks of leaks or ruptures was defeated, 37 ayes to 67 nos.
  • Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., sought to require a certification by federal pipeline regulators that they have adequate resources to assure safety; it was beaten back by Republicans, 40-58.
  • An amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to provide tax rebates for solar energy systems failed on a 40-58 vote.
  • An attempt by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to force the removal of the lesser prairie chicken from the federal list of endangered and threatened species was voted down, 54-44.
  • Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines offered an amendment that would have forced presidents to obtain the approval of state governors and legislatures before designating national monuments; it failed, 50-47.
  • An amendment by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would have put the Senate on record as recognizing the impacts of climate change on the nation’s infrastructure was voted down, 47-51.
  • Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, proposed to end wilderness study area status for all areas not designated by Congress as wilderness within one year of being considered; that amendment was rejected on a 50-48 vote.
  • Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., offered an amendment that would have permanently re-authorized appropriations into the Land and Water Conservation Fund; that amendment lost by one vote, 59-39.
  • An effort by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to include in the bill a federal renewable energy standard was defeated, 45-53.

After debate and votes on all amendments, Democrats again sought to delay a vote on the merits. This time they were unsuccessful, as the Senate shut off debate with a 62-35 vote for cloture.

Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joseph Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Warner of Virginia voted with all of the chamber’s Republicans to move to a final vote on the bill.

The final vote mirrored that margin, with the same Democratic senators voting with the majority GOP.

S.1 now moves back to the House of Representatives, where Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will have to decide whether to ask that chamber to vote to approve the amendments approved by the Senate or, instead, send the different House and Senate versions to a conference committee.

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesperson, reiterated Thursday that President Obama will veto any bill that attempts to deprive him of authority to decide whether to grant the permit necessary for a Canadian corporation to build the KXL pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.

“[O]ur position on the Keystone legislation is well known,” Earnest said. “And if, in fact, the legislation that passed the House also passes the Senate, then the President won’t sign it.”

Senate kills two more proposals to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change

The U.S. Senate again refused on Thursday to acknowledge the human role in climate change, voting down two proposals that would have forced members to go on record as recognizing scientific reality.

Senators first rejected an amendment to the underlying bill authorizing the KXL oil pipeline that specified that climate change is “real” and “caused by human activities” and “has already caused devastating problems in the United States and around the world.” The proposal, offered by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also included language that encouraged research into “clean fossil fuel technology.”

The Senate tabled the amendment, 53-46, with only one Republican – Mark Kirk of Illinois – voting with Democrats to allow floor debate on its merits.

Later, an amendment introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that also acknowledged human impacts on the atmosphere and oceans and that emphasized the importance of developing non-fossil fuel energy sources was also tabled.

The chamber, with every one of 54 majority Republicans opposed to it, voted 56-42 to table it. Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp of oil-producing state North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri also voted to deny consideration of its merits.

Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced late Thursday night that the Senate would not consider additional amendments to S.1. A vote on whether to cut off floor debate on the bill itself is expected early next week.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any bill that interferes with his authority to decide whether or not to grant the permit required to construct the KXL pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.

New Congress opens with GOP effort to push through KXL pipeline

The 114th Congress, with Republicans in charge of both chambers, opened Jan. 6 with the new majority showing a determination to move quickly on an attempt force approval of the KXL pipeline.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the new majority leader, said on Dec. 16 that he would bring a bill that strips President Barack Obama of the authority to reject the KXL pipeline to the floor as the first act of the new GOP majority in the chamber.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee planned to conduct on Wednesday a hearing on S1, the KXL pipeline bill, but it was postponed after an objection by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on behalf of the Democratic caucus.

Whether the delay will affect a mark-up of the bill that is scheduled for Thursday is not yet clear.

A Jan. 6 report in The Hill online newspaper said that there are 63 votes in the Senate to support the planned GOP legislation, including Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

All of the chamber’s 54 Republicans are co-sponsors of the bill.

The House of Representatives, under GOP control since Jan. 2011, repeatedly passed bills to approve the pipeline during the 112th and 113th Congresses and is expected to again pass such legislation within the week.

The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said Tuesday that President Barack Obama would veto any bill that seeks to eliminate the president’s authority to decide whether to grant permission for the pipeline to cross the international border separating the United States from Canada.

“I mean, the fact is this piece of legislation is not altogether different than legislation that was introduced in the last Congress, and you’ll recall that we put out a statement of administration position indicating that the President would have vetoed had that bill passed the previous Congress,” Earnest said. “And I can confirm for you that if this bill passes this Congress the President wouldn’t sign it either.”

Even if an attempted override of a presidential veto could secure the necessary two-thirds affirmative vote in the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that such an attempt would succeed in the Senate. In that chamber 67 votes would be needed to enact the KXL pipeline bill into law over Obama’s objection.

The Department of State’s review of the application for the permit needed to build the pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border is currently delayed by litigation in the Nebraska state courts.

A Lancaster County district judge ruled in February that the state law invoked by the state’s former Republican Gov. Dave Heineman to justify approval of the pipeline route through the state violated the Nebraska constitution.

That decision is now before the Nebraska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case in September.