Draft energy bill would extend oyster lease

03/14/2013

For the second time in four years, lawmakers are attempting to do what years of lobbying, scientific wrangling and legal arguments could not: compel the Obama administration to extend the lease of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.

Congressional Republicans are proposing a draft bill that would force the administration to issue a new, 10-year permit to Drake’s Bay and delay the conversion of Drakes Estero’s “potential wilderness” status to “full wilderness.” Among other controversial provisions, the law would allow energy production on the coast of the United States and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, require the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an economic analysis of the effect of the Clean Air Act on employment and expedite the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Senator David Vitter, of Louisiana, and Representative Rob Bishop, of Utah, joined 22 other Republican cosponsors in the Senate to propose the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013. The 153-word Drake’s Bay provision, the final part of a section called “regulatory streamlining,” may remain intact or become a part of another bill. The draft bill is currently before a Senate committee, where it may languish under opposition or indifference from the majority Democrats, become the subject of hearings or find some bipartisan support.

Senator Vitter’s spokesman, Luke Bolar, described the bill as a salvo in an “ongoing battle we’ve had with the Department of the Interior.”

“A large part of the bill is to expand and increase the amount of federal lands that they grant access to,” Mr. Bolar said, explaining how the Drake’s Bay provisions were developed. “Since we were doing a pretty major bill we decided to include that as well.”

Environmental Action Committee of West Marin Board President Bridger Mitchell, an opponent of the oyster farm’s continued presence in Point Reyes National Seashore, said he would support an effort by lawmakers to look at wilderness policy but that special treatment of Drake’s Bay is “politicized in a very unsatisfactory and unhelpful way.”

“If Congress wants to address the issue of wilderness designations as a generic issue on its own merits, that would be something that could be addressed,” Mr. Mitchell said. “But to shoehorn this or that position in an omnibus bill does not seem to be consistent with earlier legislation where Congress had voted to provide permanent protection to public lands.”

The legislative effort marks the second time that lawmakers have sought to help oysterman Kevin Lunny, whose cannery was the subject of years of debate between federal officials such as National Park Service chief Jon Jarvis, scientists, environmental activists and community activists until a decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year to let Mr. Lunny’s special-use permit lapse. In 2009 Sen. Dianne Feinstein attempted to place Drake’s Bay on sound legal footing by backing Section 124, a portion of a fiscal bill that authorized Mr. Salazar to issue a new 10-year permit.

A lawsuit by the oyster farm hinges partly on whether Section 124 allowed Mr. Salazar the latitude to decide against issuing a permit. An federal appeals court has allowed the oyster farm to stay open at least until May while it considers
arguments.

The law proposed by Republicans would offer less ambiguous instructions for the Interior Department to allow oyster farming in Point Reyes National Seashore, the bill’s backers said. Cause of Action, a nonprofit government watchdog and advocacy group supporting Mr. Lunny’s legal fight, said “any progress or actions that Congress makes to continue their oversight” and correct overreach by the federal government is “a sign that they’re committed to taking steps towards accountability,” according to spokeswoman Mary Beth Hutchins. Ms. Hutchins added that Cause of Action “doesn’t take a stand on proposed legislation one way or the other.”

Sen. Vitter has long been a vocal supporter of Drake’s Bay and critic of the Interior Department. In a statement last month he said that closing the oyster farm would “put people out of work for no good reason” on the basis of “misleading science and ignoring economic impacts.”