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21 Nov, 2013 22:41

US House approves $5,000 fee for official drilling protests, less federal authority over fracking

The US House passed Wednesday two bills that would demand a $5,000 filing fee for any individual that wanted to hold an official protest of a drilling project, and that would give the feds less authority nationwide over hydraulic fracking rules.

HR 1965, the Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act, imposes a $5,000 fee for anyone wishing to file for an official protest of a proposed drilling project. An amendment to the bill offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) that would have clarified the fee to make sure it was not in violation of First Amendment rights was defeated.

In addition, the bill would allow for automatic approval of onshore drilling permits should the US Department of Interior (DOI) take over 60 days to act on an application. DOI would also be required to begin commercial leasing for development of oil shale - not to be confused with “shale oil” - which is rock that must be heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to yield crude oil, as Emily Atkin of ThinkProgress points out.

The controversial practice has been largely nonexistent in the US since the days of President Herbert Hoover, who prohibited leasing federal lands for oil shale, “the dirtiest fuel on the planet,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The oil shale process “takes a large amount of energy and money, as well as 3-5 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced, a dangerous issue in the parched West,” according to Jessica Goad of the Center for American Progress’ Public Lands Project.

Large tracts of land - especially in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming - hold deposits of oil shale. The bill would require the federal government to open up 10 leases of its land in 2014 for research and demonstration projects, with further developments by 2016.

The House passed the measure, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), by a vote of 228 to 192, with seven Democrats supporting it and only one Republican in opposition.

The other bill - HR 2728, the Protecting States’ Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act - would put more authority of hydraulic fracking in the hands of states that already have rules on the practice. Unless a state has yet to set guidelines on fracking, DOI would have no authority over whether companies disclose what chemicals they use in fracking fluid, whether water from fracked wells is polluted or whether anyone can request public hearings regarding fracking permit applications.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 235 to 187, as 12 Democrats supported it and only two Republicans did not.

Hydraulic fracking is the highly-controversial process of injecting water, sand and various chemicals into layers of rock in hopes of releasing oil and gas deep underground. The practice is opposed worldwide, as shown by global protests against fracking in October, for its damning environmental impacts.

Supporters say it brings jobs and opportunities for energy independence, though detractors have pointed to exaggerated employment claims. Multiple reports have found any jobs created by fracking usually go to established, already-employed oil industry workers from places like Texas rather than local citizens.

Meanwhile, more money is being thrown at the US political class to support fracking, representing the rising popularity of it among energy companies. Calculations released Wednesday by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics Washington show fracking industry contributions to congressional campaigns went up 231 percent from 2004 to 2012 in districts and states where fracking has occurred.

The two bills have little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if it did, President Obama has stated he would veto the legislation should it get that far.

House Democrats opposed to the bills decried voting on such measures that have no chance of becoming law. “The galleries are empty, the floor is empty, because we’re not doing anything,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Wednesday on the House floor. “And it’s not because we don’t have a lot of things to do.”

“I won’t apologize for any action that’s been taken by the majority of this house to try to reign in the excesses of this administration,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) said in response.