Inventorying Congressional Action Thus Far

by Aaron Johnson, Vice President of Public Affairs on August 21, 2017 - 1:52pm

August is a heated month. In addition to sweltering temperatures, there are often political conflicts that boil over in local communities across the country. August 2017 seems true to form.

There are a few reasons events can get out of hand this time of year. Namely, lawmakers in Congress are home holding town hall meetings, so political groups take the opportunity to stage rallies and protests. During even-numbered years, August is a prime time to drive a political narrative leading up to federal elections. And, people just get irritated sweating through 90-plus degree days.

This year, while the news is focused on protests, healthcare and Russia investigations, there is good news for the western oil and natural gas industry.  Congress has begun rolling back federal regulatory overreach from the previous administration and laid the groundwork for additional reforms.

It’s worth taking inventory of the first seven months of the legislative session:

  • Planning 2.0 Repealed - Congress passed and President Trump signed into law a resolution repealing BLM’s Planning 2.0 land management rule. This was among the top priorities for Western Energy Alliance because it limited input from locally elected officials and stakeholders on the ground in the West while transferring land management decisions to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. The bill is one of just a handful ever passed under Congressional Review Act provisions allowing Congress to rescind poor polices rushed through at the end of a president’s term, which makes the achievement even more incredible.
  • Win Some, Lose Some - The House similarly passed a resolution repealing the Bureau of Land Management’s rule regulating venting and flaring of methane on public lands, only to have it fail by just one vote in the Senate. The failure to overturn rule came down to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who was under intense pressure from environmental groups and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who apparently changed his vote at the last moment.
  • Modernizing ESA - For the first time in more than a decade, debate on modernizing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has begun. Although no legislation has been passed, both the House and Senate have held hearings. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing in February showed bi-partisan recognition that the Act is broken. Notably, former Wyoming Democrat Governor Dave Freudenthal testified, “Over time, the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance and individual agency actions by presidential administrations of different but still well intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system.”

Across the Capitol in the House, the Committee on Natural Resources held hearings on five ESA reform bills that address a spectrum of issues, including the need for fundamental reform, sue-and-settle tactics by activist groups, gray wolf management, and tribal consultation. Testifying at this hearing was Alliance member Kent Holsinger of Holsinger Law, who outlined the detriment environmentalist lawsuits cause species.

  • Onshore Federal Public Lands - The House has begun reviewing the disparity between onshore production on federal lands compared to state and private lands. The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in late June examining delays in permit approvals as well as extensive and duplicative environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Alliance has consistently pointed out production lags on federal lands and we are happy to see Congress recognizes the problem and is beginning to explore ways to address it.
  • Democratic Support - We are exceptionally pleased with the creation of the Oil and Gas Caucus, led by Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of Texas. The Alliance has long sought out Democrats in Congress whom we can work with. Unfortunately, with the contraction of the pool of conservative Blue Dog Democrats, we have sometimes struggled. The caucus launched in late June with several Democrat lawmakers dedicated to the production, transport, refining, distribution, and trade of oil and gas. In contrast to policymakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who again introduced the Keep It in the Ground Act, the caucus shows there are some Democrats who support our industry.
  • Confirming Strong Leaders - It’s worth taking another moment to reflect on the significance of the Senate greenlighting leaders such as Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke and Administrator Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s just been four months since their confirmations, but they have provided a welcome relief from the overreaching authority of their predecessors.

The Senate is working to get other appointees in place within the administration who will play key roles in executing President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda. In particular, David Bernhardt was confirmed last month as Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior. A veteran of the agency, David knows how to navigate the bureaucratic inertia. Plus, he grew up on Colorado’s West Slope and understands public lands policies.

In addition, after months without the quorum necessary to operate, the Senate confirmed two members to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). With Commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson in place, FERC can now act on the backlog of approvals that will bring $13 billion worth of projects and 23,000 construction jobs online across the United States.

Of course the legislative process is slow, and we’re only eight months into Congress’s two-year session. Oversight hearings are helpful, but real change comes with getting legislation passed out of committee, through both the House and Senate and onto the president’s desk.