The Republican-controlled House passed a pair of bills Wednesday that would limit the federal government's ability to regulate energy production on public lands, measures that proponents said would prevent a slowdown of oil and gas drilling but face slim prospects in the upper chamber.
One of the bills would effectively block a proposed Obama administration rule governing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on federal lands by allowing states that already have regulations in place to use their rules instead. That passed 235-187, with 12 Democrats crossing the aisle.
The other, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., would impose a 60-day timeline for awarding drilling permits, which detractors said would disproportionately prioritize drilling over conservation. The bill passed 228-192, with seven Democrats joining Republicans, as its boosters argued more drilling would create jobs and bring more revenue to the Treasury.
Republicans, sticking with a game plan they have employed in previous legislative sessions, said the bills would open up lands for drilling that they say the Obama administration has kept off limits.
"We have tremendous potential for new onshore oil and natural gas production on federal lands, but the Obama administration is actively and purposely keeping these resources off-limits," House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., whose committee oversees public lands, said during debate.
But Democrats and environmental groups decried the measures, calling them handouts to the oil and gas industry.
“Sadly, once again House Republicans have prioritized drilling above all other land use, including conservation, hunting, fishing and camping. The bill will force approval of drilling applications without public input and hand over control of the onshore leasing system to the oil and gas industry," the 56 Democratic members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition said of Lamborn's bill.
The bills likely aren't going anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate. On top of that, President Obama already has threatened to veto the measures.
The House action comes after the Obama administration took credit for recent increased oil production, as domestic output outpaced imports last week for the first time since 1995.
But Republicans say the increase has occurred despite White House policies, as they point to energy production from federal lands dipping while activity booms on private and state lands.
Most Democrats opposed the bills, saying they would strip environmental protections and would facilitate production of fossil fuels that threaten to exacerbate climate change. The administration has insisted that production is much higher on non-federal lands because that is where the bulk of the nation's shale plays are.
The White House said the fracking bill from Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, would "undermine" the administration's efforts to install rules to manage the practice, as it would allow states with weaker rules than what the administration is pushing to take precedence.
Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to tap hydrocarbons buried deep underground. The method is credited with driving the domestic shale energy boom, but has brought fears of groundwater contamination.
The draft rule floated by the administration contains requirements for handling so-called flowback water, well integrity and disclosure of chemicals used during fracking.
But opponents of the administration's proposal — who backed the bill passed Wednesday — say it would be duplicative and would potentially stymie drilling.
"The additional time required by the federal permitting process, in addition to existing regulatory requirements, increase the cost of production and makes operations on federal lands less economical than on state and private lands," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said.