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GOP seeks to strip EPA offshore drilling oversight

Dec. 15, 2011, 1:12 p.m. EST

By Tennille Tracy

WASHINGTON -(MarketWatch)- House Republicans are trying to sideline the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in overseeing offshore oil drilling, after Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA, RDSA.LN) complained about the amount of time it is taking the company to secure air-quality permits for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

In an important piece of spending legislation Thursday, Republicans included a measure that strips the EPA’s authority to issue air-quality permits in the Arctic and shifts it to the Interior Department.

The department already handles air-quality permits in many parts of the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the U.S. drilling takes place.

The goal of the measure is to subvert an EPA appeals process that allows environmental groups and citizen activists to challenge the issuance of air-quality permits, said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), a long-time champion of the measure.

The measure has gained support from lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, Dillon said. Murkowski has also spoken to the White House and the Interior Department about the issue.

“We understand this would be acceptable–or not objectionable, at least,” Dillon said. Murkowski has “worked very, very hard and diligently to find a solution to resolve permitting delays without weakening environmental protection.”

The EPA was not available for immediate comment.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are taking an interest in the EPA process for approving air-quality permits after permits issued to Shell were challenged in a formal appeals process, and delayed. The permits haven’t yet been finalized.

Shell wants to begin drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in 2012.

The measure was included in a spending bill that would fund the U.S. government through the remainder of fiscal 2012. The components of the bill won support from House and Senate lawmakers earlier this week, but a battle over expiring tax provisions prevented the chambers from moving forward with it.

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