Congress Knows the Drill: Pass an Energy Bill
Policy + Politics

Congress Knows the Drill: Pass an Energy Bill

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Not long after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, Congress began pointing fingers at anyone it thought it could blame. How would Congress respond to the lethal explosion and the world’s largest marine oil spill in history?

Despite emotional appeals from lawmakers a year ago that would allow safer offshore drilling,  there's been little more than partisan bickering and competing legislation -- both of which have been pushed to the side by the threat of a government default.

In short, another example of more wheel spinning by the 112th Congress, which is fast becoming known as another “do-nothing Congress.” The broad scope of questions left unanswered by lawmakers leaves the U.S. with policy issues far more serious than how much drilling it should conduct of its coasts. Those questions include the safety of U.S. oil rigs for workers and the environment, the country’s undefined energy policy, the millions of Americans who rely on oil drilling jobs, and the billions in commerce being lost as current offshore activities have been brought to a slowdown.

“It is critical that Congress’ action be that which balances the safety of our workers with the industry’s ability to extract the energy that America needs to create jobs,” said Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La. “While the House has acted and will continue to act on both of these accounts, the Senate has failed to do so.”

It’s said that more than 9 million Americans get their jobs directly or indirectly through the oil and gas industry. This issue has often been appended to the broader discussion on the Hill over restoring economic order and job growth. The oil spill has been especially tough on Louisiana, which had previously been one of the strongest performing states, leading the nation out of recession. Oil exploration is a key industry and the continuing reluctance of the federal government to approve new drilling permits has caused the industry to stagnate, according to a report from Moody Analytics. Additonally, a recent study by QuestOffshore Records  indicated that almost 190,000 new jobs could be created in 2013 along with a 71 percent increase in Gulf development spending if the government stops dragging its feet on new legislation and permitting.

Though a number of ideologically driven bills in the House and Senate have been proposed, and in some cases passed, experts lament Congress’s unwillingness to prioritize the debate, come to an agreement, and send legislation to the president. “I’m not sure if it’s because of the debt ceiling, but nothing seems to be getting done on this issue” said Charles K. Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in international and domestic energy markets.

“Unfortunately we have not seen a sense of urgency coming out of Congress over the last several months on this issue,” the president said earlier this month during a Twitter Town Hall. “We can produce more, and I am committed to that, but the fact is we only have 2 to 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves; we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. We can’t drill our way out of this problem.”

In the absence of congressional legislation, the Obama administration has begun to push the issue. The Department of the Interior, for example, issued a suite of enhanced safety standards, which includes testing, a series of assessments, and enhanced procedures. And while the Obama administration lifted its moratorium on drilling in October, it has since, unofficially, slowed the pace of permitting through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). Before the spill, companies typically waited 36 days for permit approval, but now wait an average of 131 days.

While Congressional leaders have attempted to address safety, bills have been voted down time and again because of a hang up over how much oil-production revenues should be shared with states. “Congress should do all it can to expedite the permitting process, increase lease sales, and eliminate unnecessary regulations,” added Landry.

Among the bills currently languishing in committee or in the Senate include, Rep. Doc Hastings’, R-Wa., Putting the Gulf of Mexico Back to Work Act, which passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 263 to 163.  The bill claims to increase safety by requiring lease holders to receive an approved permit to drill and a safety review. It also streamlines the federal government’s permitting bureaucracy, among other issues.

“There’s no need to put aside the debt limit talks,” wrote Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in an op-ed in the Hill this month. “But there is no excuse for the administration to meanwhile forget about our Gulf Coast and our energy economy.”