U.S. House Republicans' transportation bill would expand oil, gas drilling

02 01, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

U.S. House Republican leaders proposed a $260 billion transportation spending bill Tuesday, but its prospects are slim because of controversy over provisions to allow heavier trucks and to pay for new projects with expanded oil and gas production. The bill is important for all 50 states, including Louisiana, because it sets spending parameters for transportation financing critical to repairing and upgrading roadways. The bill also is one of the federal government's biggest job-generators.

But unlike a competing Senate version, which has bipartisan support and doesn't contain the controversial proposals to expand drilling and allow heavier trucks, the House bill was labeled a nonstarter. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP House member, said he doubts the House and Senate will agree on a transportation bill this year.

Neither bill includes earmarks, the financing directed by lawmakers for pet projects back home. Democrats and Republicans, bowing to public pressure, agreed to drop earmarks, though that makes it harder for lawmakers to guarantee money for local projects. The last highway bill has about 6,300 earmarks.

Already one Louisiana member on the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee has voiced opposition to the bill introduced by committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, said through a spokesman that he agrees with the Louisiana Sheriff's Association and the Louisiana State Troopers Association that heavier and longer trucks authorized by the bill would pose safety problems and would damage the state's highways and bridges.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, expressed opposition on similar grounds. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, was noncommittal.

Proponents, including the trucking industry and groups dependent on shipping their products by truck, said bigger trucks mean they can save fuel and lower costs to consumers without sacrificing safety.

Also controversial are House Republican plans to use revenue from expanded drilling, which they plan to authorize as part of the measure, to pay for the transportation costs. While the House bill would authorize $260 billion during the next 4½ years, the Senate version would set aside $120 billion during the next two years, without any mention of expanding oil and gas development.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, plans to add a provision allowing Congress to approve the Keystone XL pipeline over the objections of President Barack Obama. That's likely to face heavy opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate and a veto threat from the White House.

Also likely to generate controversy is the House bill's provision to streamline environmental requirements for major transportation projects and another cutting Amtrak financing by 25 percent.

The House bill also contains a provision that would encourage states to turn to private firms to build extra lanes on congested highways and bridges. The provision would let states allow the private firms to charge tolls on the new lanes, which would operate as "express lanes" for motorists willing to pay the cost.

Asked about whether the state would turn to private companies to widen roads, Jodi Conachen, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said "it would be premature to comment" because the proposals are still working through the legislative process.

The Port of New Orleans, which depends heavily on shipping, also declined to take a position.

Mica, the transportation committee chairman, said the House bill represents the "largest transportation reform bill since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956.

But environmentalists said it would reduce necessary environmental oversight and force an unwise expansion in domestic drilling.

"Instead of going the bipartisan route taken by the Senate, House Republican leaders have loaded the bill with environmental protection rollbacks, extreme measures that mandate oil drilling just about everywhere, and a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.