Senate Delays Talks on West Coast Drilling Bans

Plans by the Senate Interior Department to pass a bill that would have blocked West Coast offshore drilling have been delayed, according to a statement from the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had planned to mark up the annual Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget Thursday, introducing oil and gas drilling bans off the Pacific Coast. The bans would affect California, Oregon, and Washington, and allow committee members to debate whether to block upcoming EPA climate change regulations.

The mark-up was delayed to allow the committee to review the White House budget plan for off-shore oil and gas regulation. Senator Feinstein said in a statement, “In light of the fact that the Administration transmitted to Congress last night a $100 million budget amendment affecting the reorganization of the Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, I have respectfully asked [Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)] for a delay in marking up the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill while we evaluate the Administration’s proposal.”

A date for the next session has not been set. Republican committee members have crafted an amendment to the bill that would obstruct EPA rules on limiting greenhouse gas emissions from industrial and power plants. The regulations will otherwise launch in January.

Several conservative Democrats on the committee are in favor of delaying passage of the EPA rules, having previously voted for resolutions introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) that regulate greenhouse gas emissions, although they are opposed to the most recent Republican amendment.

Murkowski’s previous, ultimately unsuccessful amendment, voted down in June 2010, would have repealed an EPA conclusion that carbon gases endanger public health and require regulation to slow the effects of global warming.

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who co-sponsored Rockefeller’s resolution to block EPA regulations of stationary sources for two years, stated that the issue should be addressed on the Senate floor and not in the markup session.

“I believe we’re going to have a vote on the Rockefeller bill on the floor of the Senate, and that’s where we should have that vote,” Dorgan said.

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The committee’s decision to delay the markup has angered many environmental groups. A coalition of 32 organizations, including Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote to Senator Inouye to oppose amendments blocking EPA rules. “Now is the time to move forward, not backward, in protecting public health,” said Greenpeace in its letter. “The Senate should reject all threats to the EPA’s authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act.”

The argument over blocking EPA regulations is particularly alarming in the wake of the recent BP spill and the lapse of longstanding offshore drilling bans on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, which ended in the fall of 2008 in the midst of a turbulent election season.

“Americans are paying the price for Big Oil’s irresponsibility,” Greenpeace stated. “It’s time to hold corporate polluters accountable for their actions.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, industrial trade associations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute have pushed to block EPA funding and regulations. Several industry groups sent letters of their own to the committee, with the American Chemistry Council stating that “a postponement amendment will give Congress the time necessary to consider the appropriate regulatory approach for stationary sources and move forward on a national climate policy… this essential step could be achieved through the appropriations process or legislation.”