Measure passes by wide margin; bill’s chances in Senate are uncertain
30 June, 2006
WASHINGTON – Congress on Thursday took a major step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in coastal waters that have been off limits for a quarter-century, but a battle looms in the Senate over the issue.
And the Bush administration’s support for the legislation, which was approved by a 232-187 vote in the House, is lukewarm.
The House bill would end an Outer Continental Shelf drilling moratorium that Congress has renewed every year since 1981. It covers 85 percent of the country’s coastal waters — everywhere except the central and western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off Alaska.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a leading proponent for lifting the ban, said he believes a majority of the Senate wants to open the protected waters to energy companies.
Asked about White House opposition to some parts of the bill, especially a provision that would give tens of billions of dollars to states that have drilling rigs off their coasts, Pombo said, “I dare them to veto this bill.”
“They don’t like us giving money back to the states. I think it’s right,” Pombo told reporters after the vote. Forty Democrats joined most Republicans in favor of ending the drilling moratorium.
Florida filibuster possible
In the Senate, the measure is likely to face a filibuster from Florida senators and possibly others from coastal states that fear offshore energy development could threaten multibillion-dollar tourist and recreation businesses if there were a spill.
The Senate is considering a limited measure that would open an area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, known as Lease Area 181, that goes within 100 miles of Florida. It is not under the moratorium. Even that is unlikely to pass unless its sponsors get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster from the Floridians.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he would pursue efforts to open the Lease 181 Area. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also of New Mexico, criticized the House-passed bill, saying it would eventually create “a huge hole in our federal budget and undermine environmental protections on our lands and off our coasts.”
Environmentalists, for their part, turned their focus to the Senate.
“Instead of catering to Big Oil and Gas, the Senate will have a chance to focus on the many faster, cheaper and cleaner ways to meet our energy needs — renewable sources of energy like home-grown biofuels, greater fuel efficiency in our vehicles, smart-growth policies, and wind and solar energy,” said Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The group said the bill would exempt seismic testing and individual oil and gas lease sales from environmental impact statements; reduce the amount of royalties that oil and gas companies must pay for tar sands and oil shale development; and no longer require companies to remove offshore drilling rigs when they are done drilling.
The House vote was a huge victory for Pombo, two Louisiana lawmakers – Republican Bobby Jindal and Democrat Charlie Melancon – and Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who spearheaded the drive to lift the moratorium.
Only six weeks ago, a proposal by Peterson to open coastal waters to natural gas development fell 14 votes short.
This time, they included a provision that would allow states to keep the moratorium in place if they opposed drilling and changed the revenue sharing so that states’ share of royalties would soar eventually as much as 75 percent.
The Gulf states where most U.S. offshore energy resources are being tapped, now get less than 5 percent of the royalties. For example, Louisiana’s royalties would go from $32 million last year to a total of $8.6 billion over the next 10 years — and even higher after that.
Loss of federal revenue
The Interior Department estimated that the changes could cost the federal government as much as $69 billion in lost royalties over 15 years and “several hundred billion dollars” over 60 years.
The White House issued a statement saying it favors much of the bill but strongly opposes the changes in royalty revenue sharing, which it said “would have a long-term impact on the federal deficit.”
The Interior Department estimates there are about 19 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 86 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath waters under drilling bans from New England to southern Alaska.
Supporters of the drilling moratorium argue there’s four times that amount of oil and gas available in offshore waters open to energy companies, mainly in the central and western Gulf of Mexico and off parts of Alaska. And they say energy companies are only developing a fraction of the government leases they have available to them.
The country uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.
While critics of the offshore drilling restrictions argue the additional oil and gas is needed if the country is to move toward greater energy independence, supporters or the bill fear energy development could despoil coastal beaches and threatens their recreation and tourism based economies.
“Our beaches and our coastline is what is critical to Floridians,” declared Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla. “We should not be sacrificing our economy, our environment for a little oil and gas.”
Pombo countered that drilling still would be prohibited within 50 miles of shore under the bill and states could extend the ban up to 100 miles. He ridiculed the bill’s critics as “opposing everything” when it comes to increasing domestic energy production.
“You can’t say no on everything,” Pombo proclaimed.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said states would have to overcome numerous hurdles to continue the drilling restrictions, including having state legislatures and the government seek such protection every five years.
Rainbow Family Gathering Expected To Draw Tens Of Thousands
21 June, 2006
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. Forest Service officers drew their shotguns but then got into their vehicles and abandoned a checkpoint without firing a shot after about 200 people at the Rainbow Family gathering surrounded the officers, an agency spokeswoman said.
“We’re not going to compromise the safety of our officers,” agency spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said Tuesday. “We have to reavaluate whether or not we’re going to continue any checkpoints because of what happened.”
At least 500 people have converged in Routt National Forest for the gathering but the Forest Service had been turning away new arrivals from entering because the group hasn’t gotten a permit for large groups. The group’s annual event, often described as a huge gathering of hippies, is expected to draw between 15,000 and 20,000 people to the Routt National Forest for a weeklong July 4th event.
About 60 to 80 people already at the event site approached the officers who had been turning people away and surrounded them in a “hostile manner”, Ottaviano said.
She said more than 100 other people who had been hanging out near the checkpoint because they were not allowed in joined the smaller group, forcing the officers to retreat.
Ottaviano said the checkpoint has been disbanded. No one was stopping people from entering the area but officers will continue their patrols, she said.
The Forest Service began issuing citations on Monday and so far about 60 people have been cited, she said.
Groups of 74 or more are required to get a free permit but no one has responded to the agency’s request to apply for one, she said. The group can still apply for a permit and the Forest Service must issue a response within 48 hours.
In the meantime, the Forest Service has closed two motorized trails near the gathering near Big Red Park to avoid any potential conflict between recreationists and the Rainbow Family, she said. Trails 1204 and 1199 are set to be closed through Aug. 20 because it could take that long for all the participants to leave.
The group gathers each year on public lands. Last year, about 15,000 turned out for the event in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and the 2004 event drew about 19,000 to the Modoc National Forest in California.
An attorney claims a right to public trials. Meanwhile, forestry officials and the group continue to face off.
An attorney for a Rainbow Family member filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday asserting that closed court hearings being held on dozens of minor infractions associated with the group’s annual gathering violate a constitutional right to public trials.
The annual Rainbow Family gathering, a counterculture bacchanal that federal officials said could attract as many as 20,000 modern-day hippies to the woods about 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs, has stirred controversy since its first adherents arrived this month.
Forest Service officials Wednesday released details of another violent confrontation with the Rainbows that required slightly injured law enforcement officers to retreat in a mist of pepper spray.
Meanwhile, Routt County commissioners and officials of the Routt National Forest enacted a regionwide ban on open fires and smoking because of the high danger of wildfires – just in time for the gathering’s July 4 climax.
Forest officials said the Rainbow Family may get permission to continue using some large fires in “kitchen” areas but campfires are prohibited.
Federal officials contend the gathering is being held illegally, and officers last week began issuing citations to dozens of participants.
The civil case, filed Tuesday by Denver attorney David Lane, argues that closed hearings on those citations being held in a nearby firehouse violate the Sixth Amendment.
The case was filed on behalf of Adam Mayo, a Colorado attorney, and William Randell III of New York, claiming that the makeshift courtroom is too small to accommodate all of those who wanted to attend.
The lawsuit seeks an emergency court order that would force the court to proceed in a way that doesn’t infringe on the plaintiffs’ rights to have a public trial.
A hearing on the case had not been set by Wednesday evening.
Many members of the Rainbow Family have claimed that law enforcement by the Forest Service has been particularly heavy-handed, boiling up into Monday’s confrontation, in which three officers were injured when two men being sought for arrest incited a crowd into an intimidating mob, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano.
“They were surrounded by a hostile crowd of approximately 200 people who were verbally abusive and hostile in their behavior,” Ottaviano said. “Individuals assaulted some of the officers and pulled the suspects away and, in one case, piled on top of one of the suspects to prevent his apprehension. The officers were forced to defend themselves with the use of pepper spray and batons.”
It is at least the third physical confrontation reported between Forest Service officers and the Rainbow Family, although accounts have differed between the two sides.