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U.S House Bills Propose Major Oil and Gas Deregulation


united-states-capitolThe Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act is a controversial series of oil & gas deregulation bills currently being proposed by the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives.

Here is a quick run-down of the key points within the Act:

  • $5,000 fee to file an official protest for proposed drilling projects
  • Directs the Department of Interior to begin commercial leasing for the development of oil shale.
  • Restricts the DOI from enforcing proposed rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing
  • Defers to existing state regulations for fracking on federal lands
  • Streamline the permit process for natural gas pipelines.
  • Set deadlines for approval of drilling permits (if not DOI approved by deadline, the permit is automatically approved)
  • Block forced disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process

The main tenets of the Act reduce the red tape and regulatory barriers of doing business, while offering oil & gas companies expanded opportunities to drill on Federal lands, particularly in the Western United States.

Unfortunately, packing bills with provisions to essentially ‘liberate’  what is already the most powerful industry on earth is not only bad policy, it also presents hugely negative implications related to public health, environmental stewardship, and freedom of speech in the United States.

The most inflammatory aspect of the bill, a $5,000 fee to log formal ‘administrative protests’ over proposed drilling permits, has been met with near universal disdain. While not explicitly saying that you have to ‘pay to protest,” which would certainly be a violation of the First Amendment, this aspect of the bill effectively silences the vast majority of Americans, especially the poorest among us, through imposing monetary penalties for simply voicing our opinion about how we should use public land.

Hannibal Travis, a law professor at Florida International University College of Law, said the language “could” be problematic under the First Amendment.

“Congress should not be able to deter legitimate protests with onerous fees unrelated to the cost of processing the protest documents,” he said via email. “This principle was established in the related context of excessive filing fees for political candidates. The Supreme Court noted in that case that excessive fees could censor First Amendment activities, and that fees unrelated to the costs imposed by the activities may be unlawful.”

But even with the dubious language, this provision is a direct affront to how American society is supposed to operate. If we do not like something, we have the right to assemble. If that right is taken away, particularly when it comes to a public issue that affects us all, then what helped make America great will be stifled by the creeping influence of corporate interests.

First Amendment implications aside, the other primary aspects of the Act only serve to make the situation worse.

For one, the proposal to direct the Federal government to begin commercial leasing for oil shale development was already something that we decided against back when Herbert Hoover was in office. It was known then that “oil shale” required a huge amount of money and energy to produce unrefined oil. Much more than is necesary to make it a worthwhile pursuit, and with negative environmental effects on top of that.

According to the NRDC, oil shale production emits four times more carbon pollution than producing conventional gasoline, credited to the amount of energy it takes to get hydrocarbons out of the rock.

Not only that, but the intense process involved – heating the rock to nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to produce crude oil, which then has to be refined – requires 3 to 5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.

Considering that much of oil shale development will occur in the Western United States, a region already rife with serious drought and water shortage problems, this process would only exacerbate the legitimate environmental concerns related to clean, usable water for the American people.

Now onto fracking…

The stipulation that restricts the ability of the DOI to enforce proposed hydraulic fracturing rules (while forcing them to defer to state fracking regulations, even on federal land) is as transparent an attempt to protect a profitable, but environmentally disastrous method from imporant and necessary regulations as you can get.

Anyone who knows anything about fracking understand the risks involved. Just understanding how the process works fills you with a unique sense of environmental dread:

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to create fractures in the shale to allow gas to travel more easily from the rock pores where the gas is trapped, to the production well. In order to create fractures a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals is pumped into the rock under high pressure. When the fluid can no longer be absorbed the pressure causes the formation to crack or fracture and allows the gas to flow through the fractures to the well. Some of the fracturing fluids are pumped out of the well and into surface holding pits or tanks but studies have shown that anywhere between 20-40% of fracking fluids may remain underground.

Couple this with a proposal to force block the disclosure of chemical used, and it starts looking like a very high-risk process whose end does not justify the means.

When a company actively lobbies to keep from having to disclose how they operate, and what’s in their products (i.e. Monsanto), it becomes obvious that we may want to keep our eye on what is really going on.

In this case we are attempting to deregulate a dangerous process, while also keeping everything involved with said process, a secret. Nothing about this sounds okay, but we are nonetheless creeping closer to allowing an industry that needs oversight, to operate with complete autonomy from any regulating authority, and without the requirement to disclose how they affect public land.

There are too many potential caveats to even consider this proposal a possibility. But alas, I am not a member of the Republican-led House, which just approved the Act today.

The bill is now set for a Senate vote, and if passed, it could be signed into law by President Obama. Fortunately, there is little chance that the bill will move beyond the Senate, and even if it did, it is a virtual guarantee that the President would veto it immediately.

An Act that harms the environment, supresses critical reviews, and establishes barriers for citizens who need their voices to be heard, is not only bad policy, it is Un-American.

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