By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett
Washington, DC -- More U.S. territory, on land and offshore, would be open to energy development with less environmental regulation under a broad proposal from Rep. Jeff Duncan.
The Laurens Republican will introduce his energy legislation when Congress returns in January, hoping House GOP leaders will add it to the mix of energy-related initiatives to consider next year, before the 2014 elections.
"It's about meeting our energy needs with domestic resources," Duncan said in recent interview on Capitol Hill.
In addition to expanding oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast and part of Alaska, Duncan's legislation would encourage wind and solar power projects on federal lands. Other provisions would make it easier for utilities to build nuclear power plants; roll back regulations on greenhouse gases; slow the government's ability to designate protected wilderness areas; open Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste; and allow the construction of the full Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
"We've tried to encompass all energy sources," Duncan said.
This will be his second attempt to pass the Energy Exploration and Production to Achieve National Demand (EXPAND) Act. The first 2012 version never got a hearing or a vote.
But Duncan, a conservative in his second term who is climbing in seniority on the House Natural Resources Committee, is undeterred. House GOP leadership often finds bills to specifically draw a contrast with the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the EXPAND Act is a candidate.
"We always hear about an 'all of the above' energy strategy," Duncan said. "This is about what we have control over: the resources under federal land and resources under the Outer Continental Shelf, and expediting the development of those."
Offshore oil and gas drilling is the centerpiece of the legislation.
Duncan's bill would call for new seismic work in the Atlantic to update data on how much oil and gas is out there. The American Petroleum Institute said 30-year-old estimates of 3.3 billion barrels of oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are likely to rise after new surveys with improved technology.
Duncan said his bill is inspired, in part, by the work of the oil industry. A recent API study said the drilling could contribute $2.7 billion to South Carolina's economy by 2035, and provide the state up to $850 million a year in royalties. Like the revenue sharing in place for the Gulf Coast states, Duncan's bill would give the south Atlantic states 37.5 percent of the rents and royalties paid by the companies to the federal government for the drilling leases.
As for concerns about accidents such as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Duncan said South Carolina residents should rest easier because the depths off the state's coastline are shallower.
"If you have a spill out there it's small, short-lived, and contained and you can clean that up," Duncan said. "It's education. People realize that any deposits are over the visible horizon, so it wouldn't have a visual effect on tourism and the beaches."
He instead focuses on the service industries and jobs along the Louisiana coast, for example, that support the drilling companies and grow the local economy.
But the debate over whether to open the south Atlantic outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling is not new. Environmental organizations say the threat to the ecological health of the coastline is greater than the potential economic benefit.
"I don't think people look at this as some massive opportunity we're missing out on," said Hamilton Davis, the energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League. "There would be opposition from coastal communities and the people who rely on having a healthy coast and environment to earn a living and live there and enjoy it."
Davis' organization disputes Duncan's optimism that the amount of recoverable oil and gas is significant to the global market, and that the economic benefit will be huge.
"There is just not enough out there . . . and we'd be sacrificing our public health and environment along the way," Davis said.
Although several sections of the bill are designed to lessen federal regulations on energy production and streamline permitting, there is one area where Duncan wants the bureaucracy to slow things down: the designation of federal wilderness areas. His bill would give Congress a role in deciding whether land is set aside for protection.
"I appreciate wilderness areas . . . but Congress might decide . . . we've got too large an area there and we need to shrink this and go after some of the resources that may be there," Duncan said.
Other provisions include ending the mandate that gasoline include some ethanol and ending some tax breaks for energy producers in exchange for a lower corporate tax rate.
Duncan has pitched the legislation to his colleagues as a "free market" approach to energy development that lessens "regulatory burdens and bureaucratic delays while ending the government subsidies that often skew the market."
The oil and gas industry is one of the biggest donors to Duncan's campaigns. Individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have given more than $78,000 to his campaigns since 2010, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.