U.S. House splits on GOP-led Alaska and mining industry bills aimed at Biden agenda

By Jacob Fischler, Alaska Beacon - May 2, 2024
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sprawls to the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea, seen here in 2006. Oil development has been proposed for the refuge's coastal plain. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand,/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sprawls to the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea, seen here in 2006. The U.S. House passed a bill Wednesday to allow oil and gas leases in the refuge. (Photo by Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The U.S. House passed a bill Wednesday to counter an Interior Department order canceling oil and gas leases in a section of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, taking aim at the Biden administration’s conservation agenda that Republicans say weighs environmental concerns too heavily at the expense of economic opportunity.

But the Republican majority also suffered a setback on the House floor. Democrats, with the help of six conservative Republicans, killed a separate bill seen as benefiting the mining industry because it would have made it easier for companies to develop sites that lack a documented mineral deposit.

The votes marked the second straight day the Republican-led chamber focused on messaging bills on public lands and natural resources issues, emphasizing an election-year theme that President Joe Biden’s energy and conservation policies are out of touch with rural voters.

“How much of our land do we have to lock up and say, ‘You can’t have access, you can’t manage it, you can’t produce energy off of it, you can’t mine on it,’” House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman said. “And it seems like as time goes on, the answer is, ‘We want to lock all of it up.’”

Westerman, of Arkansas, and other Republicans argued that environmental and labor standards are higher in the U.S. and blocking domestic mining and fossil fuel development only pushes the industry to countries with worse standards.

Democrats said Republican lawmakers appeared to be working to help industry instead of focusing on the climate crisis.

Last year was the hottest on record and saw natural disasters proliferate, but House Republicans were uninterested in addressing the crisis, Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, said.

“It’s as if Republicans were sitting in the front row with the popcorn in their hands, leaning over to ask their oil and gas buddies what they needed,” Huffman said.

Alaska vote

The House approved, 214-199a bill authored by Minnesota Republican Pete Stauber to reverse an Interior Department order canceling oil and gas leases in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Democrats Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington voted in favor. Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick voted against.

Alaska Democrat Mary Peltola, who was an original cosponsor of the bill and was the only Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee to vote in favor at the committee level, voted present on the floor. Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith also voted present.

Peltola took to the House floor ahead of the vote Wednesday.

She remained in support of the bill’s aims to promote an all-of-the-above energy approach and bring down Alaskans’ substantial energy costs, she said, but added the measure had insufficient protections for the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area and Alaska Natives’ fishing rights.

“Alaskans face many challenges and threats to our unique ways of life,” she said. “We’re on the brink of being forced to import natural gas from a foreign country and our fishermen are in the midst of an economic free fall coupled with depleted fish stocks. Unfortunately, the way this bill was written pits energy development against fisheries and for that reason I will be voting present today.”

Republicans argued that the bill was needed to counteract the Biden administration’s moves to discourage energy development in deference to environmental and climate concerns.

Biden has paused some liquified natural gas exports and came into office promising to stop oil and gas development on federal lands, Westerman said. Oil and gas leasing on federal lands resumed after a federal court order.

“Let’s just call it what it is,” Texas Republican August Pfluger said. “ It’s not a big secret that the Biden administration hates American energy.”

Democrats said the measure, like other bills the Republican-led chamber considered this week, was meant to appease the powerful energy lobby.

The bill “has no chance of becoming law,” Florida Democrat Kathy Castor said.

“But it does provide a glimpse of the GOP’s alliance with polluters over the best interests of the American people,” she said. “Whether we’re talking about the Arctic Refuge, or my beautiful part of the country along the Gulf of Mexico, Republicans simply are aiming to sell out America’s public lands and waters to their friends in big oil and the NRA.”

Mining debate

Democrats also argued that a separate mining bill was a favor to industry.

But that bill, authored by Nevada Republican Mark Amodei, died on the House floor on a 210-206 vote to recommit the bill to committee.

Six Republicans, Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Gaetz and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida voted with all Democrats to block the bill.

The bill, one of the few Natural Resources Committee bills considered on the floor this week that did not specifically respond to Biden administration action, would have clarified that mining companies did not have to document a mineral deposit before developing roads and other infrastructure.

During floor debate, Republicans argued the bill was needed to clarify a 2022 federal appeals court decision that blocked approvals for mining support facilities at an Arizona copper mine.

The bill would respond to the ruling by removing a provision in an 1872 federal mining law that mining companies must show a mineral deposit is present before building roads and other support facilities at a potential site.

“The decision limited the ability of the Forest Service to approve necessary mining support facilities and activity, which is necessary for mining operations,” Stauber said Wednesday. The decision “put virtually every new domestic mining project in jeopardy.”

Democrats said the bill would give too much power to — and provide too little accountability for — mining companies that already work in a favorable regulatory environment.

New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury said mining companies operate under an 1872 law that provides nearly unfettered access to lands that other extractive industries “could only dream of.”

Congress should be adding environmental protections to the 19th-century law, but the bill considered Wednesday would only weaken existing protections, she said.

“This bill removes the one frail safeguard that we have,” she said. “Under this bill, any American — or frankly any American subsidiary of a foreign company, including those that are located in adversarial countries — can put four stakes in the ground and on open public lands pay less than $10 an acre per year to have exclusive rights to that land, forever. Forever. This bill would create a free-for-all on our public lands.”

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.