Democrats' Drilling Bill Angers Environmental Purists

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, September 18, 2008

All summer long, House Republicans staged weekly news conferences outside the Capitol calling for more offshore oil drilling. And they were usually met by an assortment of environmental protesters chanting in unison, trying to drown out the GOP's pro-drilling voices. Some even wore polar bear costumes to protest Arctic drilling proposals.

But then Democrats approved a bill Tuesday that could lead to drilling just 50 miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, reversing the party's long-standing opposition to exploration of the outer continental shelf.

Now the usually united environmentalist front has begun to show some cracks.

Those who supported the Democratic legislation are viewed on and off Capitol Hill as the pragmatic allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Chief among them is the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta. Its energy experts have been among the sources of the anti-drilling argument. But when push came to shove this week, CAP sent out an action alert urging a yes vote on the drilling bill.

"The measure would reduce energy costs for families and includes many provisions to speed the transformation to clean renewable energy and efficiency," wrote Winnie Stachelber and Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellows at CAP.

Also falling into that category was the Sierra Club, an elder statesman among environmental groups whose motto is "explore, enjoy and protect the planet." Its top officials argued that ending the total ban on offshore drilling was a fair tradeoff for funding the transition to renewable resources. "The House energy compromise isn't perfect. It does allow expanded drilling, but at the same time, it ends major subsidies to the oil companies," wrote Nathan Manuel, the club's energy expert.

The purists who bemoaned Pelosi's legislation were led by Environment America, formed in 2007 as a collection of groups, including those formerly associated with various state Public Interest Research Groups. Environment America left no doubt where it stands: "Increased offshore oil drilling would threaten our beloved coasts and beaches with chronic pollution and potentially catastrophic spills while doing little to increase our energy supply and nothing to help Americans deal with energy costs."

And once Pelosi added more drilling in the oil shale of the Mountain West to her bill, the National Wildlife Federation joined the call to arms: "Oil shale is a double disaster -- not only for America's western wilderness and water supply, but for our climate."

The Ocean Conservancy simply stayed on the sidelines of what amounted to an intramural conflict. Before the vote, the group issued a statement that was neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the bill.

All this back and forth has environmentalists' typical opponents -- GOP lawmakers -- confused. Last week, Rep Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) said he would not believe that Democrats really supported drilling until there was an uproar among their environmental allies: "If the polar bears start showing up [at Pelosi press events], then maybe this is real."

Coming Up Lame

There's a new wrinkle to those contests that ask Hill insiders to guess the date and time when Congress adjourns for the year. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced yesterday that he will not adjourn the chamber once all legislative action is finished and will keep it open in pro forma sessions.

As Democrats have done all year when Congress goes on recess, a senator will appear every third day to open and shut the chamber in a matter of seconds. That will prevent President Bush from making any recess appointments while Congress is gone, even though the most controversial ones probably would be for only a couple months. And it will allow Senate committees to more easily convene hearings to explore how to react to the ongoing crisis in the financial markets.

So, that means the official "sine die" adjournment for the 110th Congress won't come until the last hours of the day before the 111th Congress is sworn in at a time still to be determined in early January.

Reid continued to hold off calls for a lame-duck session after the November elections. "I would hope that we would not have to do that," he said. But with unfinished business including several trade deals and a nuclear pact with India that would expire at the end of the year, Democrats are fighting a push from the Bush administration to come back.


Even though Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) is fading from the state's political scene, a motley cast of characters remains.

Take "Pro-Life," for example, the name -- yes, the name -- of a candidate running to succeed Craig. To underscore his position on abortion rights, independent candidate Marvin Richardson had his name legally changed to Pro-Life.

Not everyone is happy about Pro-Life's candidacy. First-term Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho), who calls himself pro-life -- but not in an uppercase, proper-name kind of way -- called Pro-Life and asked him to drop out of the race so he wouldn't siphon votes from Republican Jim Risch, Idaho's current lieutenant governor.

Sali, who is locked in a tight reelection race himself, also reportedly asked Kent Marmon, another third-party candidate in the Senate race, to drop out. But both Marmon and Pro-Life are staying in the contest with Risch, all hoping to defeat former congressman Larry LaRocco, the Democratic candidate.

A Senator in Need

On the eve of his federal trial, Sen Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has opened a new legal defense fund to help defray the costs of his high-powered team of attorneys, led by Brendan Sullivan.

The Senate ethics committee signed off on the defense fund last week, according to documents released yesterday. In addition to using campaign funds, Stevens now will be able to ask donors for $10,000 per calendar year for this separate account as he defends himself on charges of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts from executives of an Alaska-based energy services company.

Only lobbyists are prohibited from donating to the Stevens Legal Expense Trust. The trial begins next week.

One More Time

Rep. John Dingell, (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, fired off an angry letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson this week over the Pentagon's refusal to clean up three military bases that are on the Superfund list of the most polluted places in the country.

Citing "imminent and substantial endangerment" to public health and the environment, EPA officials issued final orders to the Pentagon to clean up Fort Meade in Maryland, McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

But the Defense Department is arguing it can clean up its own mess and doesn't need oversight by the EPA. That's a novel interpretation of the Superfund law, which gives the EPA administrator final say over the design, scope and schedule of remediation of Superfund sites.

Dingell first wrote to Johnson in June to ask what the EPA was going to do to resolve the conflict and launch the cleanups. Nearly three months later, Dingell is still waiting by his mailbox for Johnson's reply. On Tuesday, the powerful chairman fired off another letter to Johnson.

"Should the Committee assume from your failure to respond to this request that no actions have been taken by you to ensure compliance?" Dingell wrote.

An EPA spokesman said his agency is reviewing the letter "and will respond in an appropriate manner."

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this column.

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