The Hill: GOP pushes Interior head on agency rules

Republicans on a Senate appropriations panel challenged the head of the Interior Department Wednesday on a host of rules and energy assessments the agency is undertaking.

During a hearing on the agency’s 2017 budget request, members were most concerned about regional issues, including regulations for offshore drilling in the Gulf and a pause in the federal coal leasing program.

“The stakes are a lot higher today than they may have been in the past,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said, arguing the pause on new coal leases on federal land would hurt the economy in parts of his state, where coal mining is already suffering due to declining prices.

“It makes it even more important: Why wouldn’t we want to have the state’s voice, the tribes’ voices, industry’s voice, NGOs’ voices there in a more formal process?” he asked.

The Interior Department announced in January that it would stop issuing new leases for coal mining on federal land while it conducts an assessment of royalty rates. Republicans and coal-state lawmakers have said they’re concerned about the impact of the pause on local coal communities, and Daines and others on the committee Wednesday pushed Jewell to set a deadline for completing that assessment.

“There are not only questions about the adequacy of payment to taxpayers, but [the coal program] does not take into account the impact of climate change,” Jewell said Wednesday, later telling Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that she would support legislation setting a deadline for the assessment.

“I am putting in place a timeline when I leave [at the end of the Obama administration], but that could be undone.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) pushed Jewell on two new Interior rules for oil and natural gas drilling.

He said he thought it likely a proposed Bureau of Land Management rule limiting venting and flaring of methane at drilling rigs will be costly for operators now that the price of oil has declined.

He also questioned the impact a forthcoming rule meant to prevent undersea well blowouts at offshore drilling sites will have on energy production in the United States.

“Clearly if we’re going to have an impact upon the ability of oil wells to be drilled, that is going to affect the energy supply in the United States,” he said.

Jewell disputed that assessment, saying she doesn’t “support the notion that the regulation itself will have an impact on energy supply.” The rule, which officials have said will be finalized soon, will see “significant changes” due to industry input during the proposal phase, she said.

Democrats on the committee largely defended the rulemaking and the coal leasing assessment.

“We have an obligation not only to current taxpayers but to future generations to say that all federal programs deliver a fair return to American taxpayers,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said.

Tester, whose state has a lot of federal land leased for coal mining, said he supports assessing the coal program, but that it’s important to limit the length of the review.

“I think that it is critical that we get a fair return on those coal dollars,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea to do the research and a good idea to make sure we get a good return, but this can’t go on forever.”