Lawmakers seek to ease oil restrictions after storms

Sep 25, 2005 02:00 AM

by H. Josef Hebert

Riding a wave of concern over high energy prices triggered by Hurricane Katrina, congressional Republicans are rushing to ease environmental rules on refineries and looking for ways to open new coastal waters to oil and gas development.
Sponsors of the Republican energy package said the measures were needed to address the vulnerabilities exposed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the nation's energy system, especially the country's shortage of refineries and the concentration of oil and gas resources in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

But critics accused House Republicans of exploiting the tragedy that has hit the Gulf region to pursue a slew of pro-industry measures that Congress rejected earlier this year when it passed a broad energy bill that was supposed to address the country's long-term energy problems.
Two House committees were to begin crafting different parts of the new energy legislation, with anticipation that the full House would take up the legislation early October. The Senate has yet to consider post-hurricane energy legislation, but also was expected to explore new proposals in the coming weeks.

After seeing the devastation caused by the two hurricanes on Gulf oil and gas production, "Our country understands how fragile our energy sector is... and how easy it is to disrupt it," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Barton is pushing a sweeping array of proposals that he said were aimed at making it easier for industry to expand or build refineries and pipelines. No new refinery has been built since 1976 although many existing refineries have expanded, increasing capacity in recent years.

The Barton measure included easing air pollution control rules on refineries, setting shorter deadlines for issuing refinery permits and a government-funded "risk insurance" program to shield companies against lengthy regulatory delays in refinery construction. And it would give the federal government greater say in siting refineries and pipelines.
A companion measure, being put together by the House Resources Committee, called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development and would clear the way for states to allow oil or gas drilling in their coastal waters, including areas under a federal drilling ban. States would get half of the revenue from new lease sales. The measures amount to a wish-list the oil and gas industry has been pursuing without success in Congress for years.

Environmentalists and state and local officials accused sponsors of the legislation of exploiting the hurricane devastation and public fears about rising energy costs to push through pro-industry measures that, in the end, will be environmentally harmful.
"They're using this disaster to roll back public health protection," said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association. He argued that some of Barton's proposals would jeopardize government efforts to require cleaner burning diesel and allow more air pollution from refineries and other industrial plants.

Not only environmentalists, but organizations representing city and county governments and state officials in charge of implementing clean air requirements were mobilizing to try to block the GOP energy proposals.
"Though hailed as a post-Katrina package," the proposals would "dismantle environmental laws that are not barriers to rebuilding the affected Gulf states," said Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities.

William Becker, executive director of two organizations that represent state and county air pollution control officials, said Barton's legislation would allow refineries to expand operations without installing new pollution controls. Similar changes have been proposed by the Bush administration, but are hung up in court because of lawsuits from several states.
The oil industry argues that the cost of meeting environmental regulations, a maze of red tape and permitting delays has kept investorsfrom considering new refineries. They also argue more offshore natural gas resources need to be exploited to meet US demand for the fuel.

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