Senators bundle House bills into WEST Act to expedite energy exploration, weaken EPA

Some of the most controversial environmental legislation to pass the House has been bundled together into an omnibus bill in the Senate called the Western Economic Security Today (WEST) Act.

U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced the WEST Act last week, extolling it as a job generator. In an op-ed he wrote Monday for the St. George News, Hatch lauded oil and gas drilling as nirvana on earth, a slam-dunk way to jump-start employment in the region.

“Job creation and energy production is typically a match made in Heaven in Utah and other western states. They are a perfect complement – much like former Jazzmen Karl Malone and John Stockton were in their heyday,” the senator wrote.

But not everyone is jumping up from their seats, hooting and hollering in favor of hydraulic fracturing.

Gathered concentrated oil burns during a controlled oil fire in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The U.S. Coast Guard worked in partnership with BP, local residents, and other agencies to conduct this "in-situ burn" to aid in preventing the spread of oil following the April 20 explosion on Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon. (U.S. Navy photo)

“The WEST Act is not aligned with the conservation values of the American people,” said Emily Diamond-Falk, communications manager for The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. “In a recent Colorado College survey, a majority of independent voters across the West said that they were in favor of ‘reducing our need for more coal, oil and gas by expanding our use of clean, renewable energy that can be generated in the United States. The same poll found that voters were in strong agreement that ‘our national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of your state’s economy.’ It appears that the WEST ACT is an effort to open our shared public lands and waters to industrial development and pollution.”

The bills bundled into the WEST Act include the Jobs and Energy Permitting Act, or H.R. 2021, which was cited in a report commissioned by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Howard Berman, D-Calif., late last year that called the Republican-led 112th Congress “the most anti-environment House in U.S. history.” The legislation would upend the Supreme Court’s decision that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The bill also prohibits the EPA from collecting emissions information.

The WEST Act would undermine the Clean Air Act in a multitude of ways. It includes the so-called Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, which would cast doubt on the EPA’s ability to regulate coarse particulate matter from mining and extraction industries, or dust that contains arsenic or other heavy metals, or dust that substantially harms public health by other means. U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, both D-Colo., have been vocal in their skepticism of the bills’ intentions.

The WEST ACT would additionally include the expedited consideration of permits to drill in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia and end what Republicans say is the Obama administration’s de facto moratorium on new offshore drilling. The Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act, or H.R. 1230, and The Reversing President Obama’s Offshore Moratorium Act, H.R. 1231, are the House versions of the legislation now in the WEST ACT.

According to Hatch’s editorial, the WEST ACT would also “end the confusion and uncertainty in the EPA’s decision-making process for air permits, which is delaying energy exploration in Utah and across America, including in the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf, a project expected to create 50,000 jobs and produce 1 million barrels of oil per day.”

Barrasso said the GOP has laid out a clear path to energy security and job creation.

“For too long, the Obama administration’s anti-American energy policies have strangled western job creators,” he said. “By removing harmful EPA and public lands regulations, our legislation encourages American energy production and economic growth.”

In reality, drilling has reached its highest level under President Obama than at any point since the Reagan administration. Domestic oil production hit an eight-year high in 2011, and natural gas production hit an all-time high that year.

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