U.S. House split over Republican-led Alaska and mining bills aimed at Biden agenda • South Dakota Searchlight

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday to counter an Interior Department order terminating oil and gas leases in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It takes aim at the Biden administration's conservation agenda, which Republicans say places too much emphasis on environmental concerns at the expense of economic opportunities.

But the Republican majority also suffered a setback in the House of Representatives. Democrats, with the help of six conservative Republicans, rejected a separate bill that they said would benefit the mining industry by making it easier for companies to develop sites where there is no documented mineral deposit.

The votes marked the second straight day in which the Republican-led chamber focused on announcing bills on public lands and natural resources issues, emphasizing an election-year theme of President Joe Biden's energy and conservation policies being out of touch to rural voters.

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“How much of our land do we have to lock up and say, 'You can't access it, you can't manage it, you can't generate energy from it, you can't mine it,'” House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman said. “And it seems like over time the answer is, 'We want to keep everything under wraps.'”

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 the industry instead of focusing on the climate crisis.

Last year was the hottest year on record and natural disasters were increasing, but House Republicans were not interested in addressing the crisis, said California Democrat Jared Huffman.

“It's as if Republicans were sitting in the front row, popcorn in hand, leaning over to ask their oil and gas friends what they need,” Huffman said.

Vote in Alaska

The House approved, 214-199, a bill authored by Republican Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota that would repeal an Interior Department order terminating oil and gas leases in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Republican Dusty Johnson of South Dakota voted in favor.

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

Alaska Democrat Mary Peltola, who originally co-sponsored the bill and was the only Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee to vote for it at the committee level, voted present on the floor. Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith also voted in attendance.


Peltola took the floor of the House of Representatives before Wednesday's vote.

She continued to support the bill's goals of promoting a comprehensive approach to energy and reducing Alaska residents' significant energy costs, she said, but added that the measure does not provide sufficient protection for the Northern Bering Sea Climate Protection Area and Alaska Natives' fishing rights.

“Alaskans face many challenges and threats to our unique way of life,” she said. “We are on the verge of having 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. Regrettably, the way this bill has been drafted pits energy development against the fisheries sector and that is why I will be voting today.”

Republicans argued that the bill was necessary to counter the Biden administration's efforts to hamper energy development out of environmental and climate concerns.

Biden has halted some liquefied natural gas exports and came into office promising to stop oil and gas development on federal lands, Westerman said. Following a federal court order, oil and gas leasing on federal lands has resumed.

“Let’s just call it what it is,” said Texas Republican August Pfluger. “It’s no big secret that the Biden administration hates American energy.”

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

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

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

Mining debate

Democrats also argued that a separate mining law would be a favor to the industry.

But that bill, authored by Nevada Republican Mark Amodei, failed in the House on a 210-206 vote to send the bill back to committee.

South Dakota Republican Dusty Johnson sponsored the bill. 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, joined all Democrats in voting to block the bill.

The bill, one of the few Natural Resources Committee bills up for debate this week that did not specifically respond to actions by the Biden administration, would have made clear that mining companies would not have to document a mineral deposit before developing roads and other infrastructure.

During floor debate, Republicans argued that the bill was necessary to resolve a 2022 federal appeals court decision that blocked permits for mining support facilities at a copper mine in Arizona.

The bill would respond to the ruling by eliminating a provision in an 1872 federal mining law that requires mining companies to prove that a mineral deposit exists before building roads and other supporting facilities at a potential site.

“The decision limited the Forest Service’s ability to authorize the necessary mining support facilities and activities necessary for mining operations,” Stauber said Wednesday. The decision “endangers virtually every new domestic mining project.”

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

New Mexico Democrat Melanie Stansbury said mining companies operate under an 1872 law that grants near-unfettered access to land that other mining industries “could only dream of.”

Congress should add environmental protections to the 19th century law, but the bill discussed Wednesday would only weaken existing protections, she said.

“This bill eliminates the only weak protection we have,” she said. “Under this bill, any American — or, frankly, any American subsidiary of a foreign company, including those based in countries in conflict — can put four stakes in the ground and on open public lands for less than $10 per acre per year pay to have exclusive rights to this land, forever. Forever. This bill would create free access for all on our public lands.”

Anna Harden

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