WASHINGTON -- Oil and gas producers working in the Gulf of Mexico would pay to help restore the San Joaquin River under an increasingly controversial bill that encountered new difficulties Wednesday.
With the oil and gas industry mobilizing, and San Joaquin Valley lawmakers fracturing, a key House committee canceled at the last minute plans to approve the bill Wednesday morning. Now, lawmakers have given themselves one more week to salvage the legislation that's struggled all year.
"We're still trying to work out some of the issues," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
The still-evolving bill would authorize levees, channel improvements and other work needed so more San Joaquin River water could flow below Friant Dam. With the river revived, salmon would be reintroduced by 2013.
The plan settles a lawsuit filed in 1988 by environmentalists unhappy over the river's decline. Although the settlement could reduce irrigation deliveries by 19 percent annually, Friant-area irrigation districts endorsed it rather than let a federal judge allocate the water.
Switch angers Republicans
Ever since Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, introduced the first version in January, backers have sought ways to offset roughly half of the bill's $500 million price tag. The offsets can come from new revenues or from money diverted from other projects.
This week, Costa replaced Radanovich's bill with his own.
Radanovich's staff first saw the new bill language Tuesday, and the seemingly abrupt maneuver infuriated the Republicans.
"I'm disappointed that it's become incredibly partisan," Radanovich said Wednesday. "It's turned into a very divisive issue now, and I regret that."
Costa, in turn, stressed that he has "worked with George for two years on this." However, Costa added that his Resources Committee seat enables him to move the bill through the Democratic-controlled panel.
Costa's bill called for some of the river restoration money to come from Friant-area farmers repaying their federal dam construction debt more quickly.
The bill also levies a "conservation of resources" fee on certain oil-and-gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. For every acre that isn't producing oil or gas, the companies holding the lease would pay $3.75. This raises the fees by 40 percent to 60 percent.
Lobbyists express opposition
Costa called the oil-and-gas fee a "temporary" solution, a placeholder designed to get the bill through committee. He indicated that it probably would be replaced later by money from a nuclear energy industry cleanup fund.
The explanation did not mollify oil-and-gas lobbyists or Radanovich, who said the proposal "severely impacts" his support for the overall bill.
"I understand what the goal is," American Petroleum Institute spokesman and senior attorney Erik Milito said. "We just oppose this fee they're trying to impose."
Joined by individual companies such as Shell and Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute frantically lobbied against the new bill this week.
The arguments resonated among Republicans, who were upset that the bill was sprung on them shortly before they were expected to vote.
Radanovich further complained about Costa "virtually shutting me out of all conversations" regarding the new bill.
"They really complicated it when they put this tax increase there," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "We barely had time to look at it."
Feeling the pressure, committee leaders Wednesday morning canceled the markup about two hours before the panel was scheduled to start working. A make-up session has been set for Nov. 15.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.