A Paonia activist last week testified in Washington, D.C., in support of a bill that would significantly change the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas leasing program.

Pete Kolbenschlag spoke at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing in favor of H.R. 3225, the Restoring Community Input and Public Protection in Oil and Gas Leasing Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif.

It would rescind Trump administration actions shortening and in some cases eliminating public comment periods on oil and gas leasing decisions; raise the onshore oil and gas royalty rate, lease rental fee and minimum lease bid amount; and require companies to pay a fee to nominate lands for leasing, among other measures.

"We often face challenges getting our voices heard by the Bureau of Land Management," Kolbenschlag told hearing members.

He said previous, more adequate public comment periods resulted in the agency pulling North Fork Valley parcels from proposed sales after local residents and others brought concerns to the agency's attention. Shortened comment periods now, including just 10 days in some cases, can unfairly shut out comments from entities such as the Paonia Town Council, which meets every other week, he said.

He said public lands are important to the valley, for everything from their value to hunters to their role as a scenic backdrop to local wineries.

"People don't go to a winery to look at well pads, to look at compressor stations, to look at roads carving across their public lands," he said.

The subcommittee's chairman, Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., called the measure "common-sense legislation that will help even the playing field and make fundamental changes to the system to more adequately protect taxpayers and public land users across the country."

But Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said during the hearing that the BLM has restored common sense to its oil and gas leasing program during the Trump administration and reduced the bureaucratic burdens, although there is still too much red tape. He said the bill seems to be a backdoor attempt to shut down energy development. But he said the good news is it won't become law.

"The Senate would never pass it and the White House would never sign it into law," he said.

Mike Nedd, a high-level BLM official, told the panel, "We believe it would have a significant impact where it would really curtail the exploration and development of oil and gas on federal land."

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, told the committee the measure is in fact a "keep it in the ground" bill. She said there has to be a balance between regulation and the ability to go forward with oil and gas development.

"This bill would vastly upset that balance," she said.

Levin, who sits on the subcommittee, told his colleagues that scientists overwhelmingly have found fossil fuel extraction has dramatic impacts on communities.

"All we're asking is for the public to be able to participate in the process, to have their voices heard," he said.

Sgamma contends the public gets numerous opportunities to comment, and other measures in the bill such as raising the royalty rate and rental fee would make federal lands development less competitive with private lands drilling.

Durango-based Bruce Baizel, with the conservation group Earthworks, spoke in favor of notification and other requirements the bill contains to benefit private landowners who face possible leasing and development of federal minerals beneath their land. He said those requirements are consistent with what already is required in Colorado and New Mexico.

He said the bill would have little impact on oil and gas development involving federal lands and minerals.

"It will just bring the practice up to what's happening on state and private land. In that sense it is an equalizer and it's an equalizer towards the public," he said.

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