By Mark Fischenich
Congressman Tim Walz is part of a coalition of Republican and Democratic House members who believe they have a solution to the partisan gridlock on legislation to tackle America’s growing energy crisis.
The proposed legislation would allow more oil drilling off the nation’s coasts and use royalties paid for the drilling rights to finance alternative energy and conservation programs. It would maintain the ban on drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while releasing oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to drive down prices in the short term.
“I think it’s what the public has been asking for,” Walz said.
The coalition, which Walz said was made up of 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats, has been meeting for about one month without the blessing or participation of House leaders from either party. A Mankato Democrat, Walz said the coalition’s hope is that House members will get an earful from constituents during their long August recess about the gridlock on energy in Washington and that the lawmakers will return in September looking for a compromise to enact.
“The cynics will say ‘No way,’” Walz said of the prospects of passing such a sweeping bill in the few remaining weeks before lawmakers devote their full attention to campaigning. “... When they go home (for the August break), we think the public is going to be asking members, ‘Why don’t you sign on to this bill?’”
The process involved in developing the bill left longtime members saying it was one of the more refreshing experiences they’ve had in Congress, Walz said of the way compromises were negotiated and agreement was reached.
“There was no talk with leadership, no talk with lobbyists,” he said. “It was 24 members sitting in a room.”
The key compromise involves lifting some — but not all — restrictions on offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf. Removing virtually all restrictions on offshore drilling has become the chief strategy of Republican leaders, including GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
Top congressional Democrats and presidential candidate Barack Obama oppose offshore drilling beyond areas where it is already allowed. Instead, they’ve focused on legislation aimed at oil market speculators who they say have needlessly driven the price of oil to record levels.
Both sides in the dispute accuse the others of trying to divert attention from the real issue.
A few weeks ago, Walz was making similar arguments as Democratic leaders about the ineffectiveness of more offshore drilling.
He says now that the compromise shows that offshore drilling can be done in a reasonable way that invests proceeds into long-term energy solutions. Drilling restrictions will remain where needed to protect areas where tourism, the environment and the needs of the U.S. Navy would be undermined by oil platforms, he said.
But the vast majority of offshore oil will be accessible to drilling, providing future domestic oil reserves. In return, an estimated $2.6 trillion in royalties will be paid to the government with nearly $1 trillion dedicated to transitioning the nation to renewable energy sources and conservation.
The idea was already garnering some supporters Wednesday.
“There’s been a pretty big push today in co-sponsors and people who want to get on it. By the end of the day, I’m hoping we’ll have more than 50,” said Walz, who expects that number will grow after lawmakers spend some time with constituents next month. “... It’s kind of using the leverage of the public.”