Jeff Duncan (JeffDuncan.house.gov)
By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- An Upstate congressman's proposal to allow drilling within 100 miles of South Carolina's coast and reopen a Nevada nuclear waste repository has gained traction among conservatives but stands little chance of becoming law this year.
Prominent conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and RedState.org praise freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan's EXPAND Act as a free-market alternative to the Obama administration's energy policies.
But only 22 Republicans -- including South Carolina's four other GOP House members -- have signed on as co-sponsors. No Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill, which Duncan introduced in March.
The legislation also hasn't caught the eye of House Republican leaders, who have yet to schedule it for a committee hearing. Even if it passed the House, the measure would die in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
But Duncan is undaunted. In a recent interview, he said he's willing to wait years for his bill to become law.
"I understand that sometimes it takes multiple sessions for significant pieces of legislation to get passed," he said. "Whether it takes one week or one day or five years, we're going to continue pushing that."
Duncan's bill includes a host of Republican energy proposals, many of which have been defeated in the past and are opposed by environmental groups.
In addition to allowing oil and natural gas exploration off the South Carolina coast, the measure would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, clear the path for the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, reopen the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada and eliminate all federal energy subsidies.
It also would limit or roll back several environmental regulations, including smog and soot limits considered pivotal in preventing the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people from respiratory illnesses.
RedState.org called the bill "the most comprehensive free-market energy bill that takes a true all-of-the-above approach." The Heritage Foundation said it "would introduce market forces into energy policy" by reducing the federal role in energy.
But critics like Tom Clements, a former Green Party Senate candidate in South Carolina, say most of Duncan's proposals are extreme.
"The legislation looks to me like it was written by the petroleum industry," said Clements, who lives in Columbia and works on nonproliferation issues for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. "It totally ignores environmental concerns."
But he also said some of Duncan's proposals "may warrant further discussion." He cited the congressman's call to end energy subsidies, repeal the federal mandate requiring the use of ethanol and let Indian reservations set their own energy policies.
Duncan's call to reopen Yucca Mountain will find no favor with the White House.
Soon after he took office, President Barack Obama announced plans to scrap construction at the site, which was to permanently store military and commercial nuclear waste from around the U.S. One of the project's most vocal opponents was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Canceling the Yucca Mountain project -- after taxpayers had spent $10 billion on it -- means lawmakers are no closer to finding a permanent repository for 70,000 tons of nuclear waste than they were a generation ago. The waste will continue to be stored for decades at nuclear power plants and former weapons sites like the Savannah River Site.
Duncan's proposal to allow drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf off South Carolina also won't go anywhere, though Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echo that call. Graham has filed legislation to expand offshore drilling to the South Carolina coast, but it's stalled in the Senate.
In response to the April 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama administration extended a nearly 40-year ban on drilling in the south Atlantic. The administration's current plan would award drilling leases only in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia coast and Alaska.
On Wednesday, the House voted 253-170 to expand offshore drilling to the rest of the U.S., but the White House immediately reiterated its opposition.
The Office of Management and Budget said the administration's five-year offshore drilling plan allows exploration in regions containing an estimated 75 percent of oil and gas resources in U.S. waters.
The House bill would open up drilling along the entire east and west coasts "without regard for significant issues such as state and local concerns and impacts on important fishing areas and with inadequate consideration of military use conflicts," the OMB said in a statement.