Was oil shale hearing progress, or nothing more than activity?

Somewhere along the way, as I navigated elected offices and a quarter-century of attending countless government, private sector and non-profit meetings, I adopted a personal benchmark for evaluating time spent in those sessions.

Is this progress, I’d ask myself, or just activity?

Truth be told, many of those meetings, even some where I presided, were merely activity. Lots of earnest discussion, many differing opinions, occasionally even some great ideas. But movement toward actually getting something done? Not always.

Which brings me to that hearing by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources here in Happy Valley last Wednesday. Lots of activity leading up to and during the three-hour session. But progress? I think not.

My first experience with a congressional field hearing came four decades ago as a young reporter covering Ted Kennedy’s foray onto an Arizona reservation to look into education issues affecting American Indians. Then, as was the case last week, the effort seemed more about making a statement, reinforcing already-formed opinions, than uncovering facts.

The title of last week’s hearing set the stage:“American Jobs and Energy Security: Domestic Oil Shale the Status of Research, Regulation and Roadblocks.” With the GOP in charge and setting the House subcommittee agenda, there was little doubt this was another opportunity to joust with the Obama administration.

We shouldn’t be surprised that partisanship is what’s done when one party is in charge on the administrative side and another wields the levers of power in part of the legislative branch. Only the names and the initials that follow them change.

Likewise, agenda determines outcome.

Pull in the state head of the Bureau of Land Management. No matter that she’s just managing decisions made far up the Department of Interior hierarchy. Quiz her about the review of oil shale policy now underway. Don’t expect answers. Just get questions on the record for future jousting.

Don’t allow public testimony or questions. Do call primarily friendly” witnesses, in this case industry and supporters, including a representative of an industry-subsidized “consumers” group.

Never mind that industry representatives downplay the number of workers needed for new extraction processes. Claim hundreds of thousands of jobs are being held hostage to rules. Call ‘em “roadblocks.” No matter that work on the initial round of research leases is incomplete and, in some cases, just getting underway.

Six leases already in place are grandfathered into the previous administration’s scenario. Only if those leaseholders elect to do so will they be affected by any changes that might result from the update. Still, they complain, ignoring statements in the operative policy document about a lack of current information.

First-round lessees who demonstrate a commercially viable process on their initial federal acreage gain rights to more than 5,000 additional acres. Second-round leaseholders only get to convert 640 acres. Industry doesn’t like that.

But isn’t proving new and innovative processes supposed to be the point of these “research, demonstration and development” leases?

The minority knows its place in these settings. Regardless of which party is in power, the other side gets short shrift in shaping the agenda and testimony. So they have a choice. Actively participate in the hearing. Attempt to shape, perhaps even turn, the debate. Call witnesses guaranteed to draw attention to the issues.

Or not.

For this hearing, suggestions for higher-caliber testimony, including those made by a certain ex-mayor and former county commissioner who ended up on the witness list, were rejected by staff for the minority. Elected Democrats on the subcommittee were no-shows.

The apparent strategy: Get a few important issues into the record. That includes widely varying, unverifiable, estimates of water demands and no consideration of how communities can protect existing jobs or save current taxpayers from paying for impacts to services and infrastructure.

But don’t call attention to this event in the heart of oil shale country. Instead, prepare to engage where it really counts, on the banks of the Potomac, no matter how informative this discussion might be to those most directly concerned.

That’s how congressional field hearings work today and how they worked four decades ago.

You decide whether it’s activity or progress.

Jim Spehar knows his answer to the question. Yours is welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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