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National Journal: Hastings to Lead the Way on Gas-Price Debate
Posted by Amy Harder, National Journal on March 07, 2011

Hastings to Lead the Way on Gas-Price Debate
by Amy Harder
National Journal
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Hastings: Likely to push for more drilling.

The higher oil prices get, the more prominent Rep. Doc Hastings becomes.

The Republican chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and represents a conservative district in eastern Washington state. From that perch, he has become the mouthpiece for the GOP’s antagonism toward President Obama’s oil and gas policy.

That hostility is alive and well in both chambers of Congress, but it has taken a back seat to efforts within the more powerful Energy and Commerce Committee to hamstring Obama’s climate-change regulations.

This state of affairs will likely change as oil prices keep going up because of continued Middle East unrest and the arrival of the summer driving season. Hastings has always said that one of his top priorities was to examine the administration’s oil and gas policy, but the high oil prices have added a new layer of urgency.

“If there’s been a shift at all, it’s because of rapidly increasing oil prices, which have moved up our timeline on having hearings on gas prices,” he said in an interview last week.

After losing his first bid for Congress in 1992, Hastings was elected to the House in 1994 and has won reelection relatively easily ever since. With the House’s large turnover in recent years, he is starting to fall into the category of Old Bulls. GOP political experts describe him as not quite boring but certainly more predictable than, say, former Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who is now ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“He is not a flashy guy,” said Jack Coleman, who held top staff positions on the Natural Resources Committee from 2003 to 2009. “Some guys are flashy. They’re more apt to create some excitement. This is not Chairman Hastings’s way. He is all about substance. And what you see from him is going to be about substance.” Coleman worked with Hastings for a few months until he left the Hill for EnergyNorthAmerica, a consulting firm focusing on oil and gas.

Hastings is reliably conservative. National Journal’s annual vote ratings, released in late February, rank him as the 58th most conservative House member of 2010. He is to the right of other GOP leaders, including Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., (who ranks 114) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. (129th). The conservatism of Hastings is all the more significant, given that he comes from a state known for its liberal leanings.

His conservatism also provides a stark contrast to the liberalism of the panel’s new ranking member, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who is the eighth-most liberal House member, according to the NJ vote ratings. The gulf between the two is much more pronounced than the one in the last Congress between Rahall and Hastings.

“This is my first time working closely with him,” Hastings said of Markey. “I find him a very engaging individual, and we’ve talked on other issues other than the ones in front of us. I find those conversations very enlightening.” Markey is one of the chamber’s most outspoken critics of the oil and gas industry. “I have a lot of passion too,” Hastings said.

While Upton and Whitfield are pressing ahead with a measure preempting the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-emissions rules, Hastings is keeping mum on his legislative plans. He and his top aides are careful to note, though, that he will be moving legislation.

“It won’t be a bill factory like before” when Democrats were in the majority, said Todd Young, Hastings’s chief of staff, in an interview. “Will it produce real, substantive legislation? Yes.”

Young said that the committee is working on a timeline for legislation now.

“I think it could be measured in terms of weeks, not months,” said Young, noting that Memorial Day and the typically higher gas prices for the summer driving season are just around the corner.

It’s almost certain that the first piece of legislation Hastings introduces will open more oil and gas production offshore and on federal lands, although the chairman and Young wouldn’t comment on specific plans.

Coleman suggested that Hastings could push a measure similar to the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006, which Coleman took the lead on writing. That bill would have opened up more drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf and given states a share of the revenue; it passed the House but never went anywhere in the Senate.

Hastings has also had a laser eye on the administration’s wildlands policy and devoted an entire hearing to it last week. He says that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is unduly designating federal lands as wilderness areas over other purposes, such as energy development.

Like Upton’s efforts to hamstring EPA, Hastings’s attempts to counter Obama’s oil and gas policy will be more symbolic than anything because the real test will come in the upper chamber.

It’s no secret that Upton’s Energy and Commerce Committee has taken most of the limelight since the new Congress convened in January. EPA’s carbon rules are a political flashpoint for the tea party movement, and Upton is moving full-steam ahead to override those regulations. But Hastings has been relentless in issuing statements and vowing strong oversight of the administration’s oil and gas policy. And as oil prices go up, Capitol Hill’s attention will refocus.

“There will be a direct correlation between gas prices and the number of hearings,” Young said. As every Hill staffer knows, the same could be said for the number of calls coming from constituents.

“People become much more motivated to contact their congressmen and tell them they have to do something about this when gas prices are high,” Coleman said. “And when Congress gets contacted, that’s when they do something.”

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