Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Will economic reality trump environmental overconfidence?

Have I been hibernating? Hardly. I got a new heart valve on Election Day and have been slowly recovering. Between that and my limited computer skills, this has been my first posting since late October. A lot has happened since then.

Let's start with Henry A. Waxman's successfully challenging John D. Dingell to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi carefully stated her neutrality in the contest, but it was clear for months before that she was not happy with Dingell's deliberate approach to global climate change and cap-and-trade. Waxman's arrival means there will be someone in charge of this committee who's more willing to move aggressively. One reason it's been relatively quiet so far is that several people are holding their breath.

That's not the only House committee where things could get lively in 2009. Natural Resources chief Nick J. Rahall announced plans to examine the Bureau of Land Management's multiple use concept in an apparent continuation of his suspicion that the Interior Department agency has been too accommodating to oil and gas producers. The royalty-in-kind program scandal over at the Minerals Management Service obviously hasn't raised his opinion of recent federal lands management.

Environmental organizations clearly relish the possibility that political appointees in the new administration will be more sympathetic to their concerns. Several have launched attacks on BLM's resource management plans in Utah and Montana, which won't win them friends among rank-and-file employees who developed the strategies. The agency has worked hard to engage more stakeholders in recent years. So has MMS, as anyone who attended its OCS Policy Committee meeting in December discovered.

Public reactions to soaring gasoline prices forced Congress to let federal Outer Continental Shelf leasing moratoriums expire at the end of September. One question now is whether new restrictions will replace them, such as the bill which Pelosi and Rahall presented before the election.

Then there are the president-elect's energy and environment nominations. Former Envrionmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner's return in a new position as White House energy, environment and climate change coordinator worried some people I spoke with, although others said her experience as a federal administrator could actually be an asset. Barack Obama clearly wants closer coordination of environmental and energy matters, but he's also nominated people to lead the Energy and Interior departments who could have ideas of their own.

At Interior, the biggest question is which Ken Salazar will be in charge: the one who inserted a moratorium on oil shale leasing into the department's fiscal 2008 budget at the 11th hour, or the pragmatist who brings warring factions together to reach workable agreements. Salazar, like Obama, is smart enough to dispense with dogma when political survival is at stake. It probably won't be now that oil and gas prices have plunged in response to falling demand as US and world economies head into recession.

That recession means that providing an economic stimulus will be at the top of the new administration and Congress's agenda initially. Having to pay for it will come later. Some folks already have noted that leasing of federal land at Interior is the second-biggest source of revenue after the Internal Revenue Service. But it's questionable whether this will be enough to overcome objections to expanded leasing. Pressure from voters dissipated when oil and gas prices fell.

2009 promises to be every bit as lively as 2008. It's good to be back.


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