ALEC Members Are Ready for a Surge of Land and Energy De-Regulation

The newly empowered conservative state legislators want to free their lands from the EPA.

"I'm fairly satisfied with the oil and gas industry's treatment," said Colorado State Senator Kevin Lundberg. "When they're doing it for themselves, they do a good job."

It's December 5, and Lundberg is standing in the emptying ballroom of the Hyatt near Capitol Hill. The American Legislative Exchange Council's 2014 Washington summit, a post-election tradition, has just ended after a speech by former Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who now runs an eponymous firm that helps businesses overcome "regulatory challenges." Lundberg, whose Republicans took back the state Senate in November's races, is telling me the story of how a drilling company once goofed on his family's  property -- they put up two wells after fumbling the first one -- then fixed it themselves. That contrasted with the ways national and local Democrats had tangled up businesses.

"One of the first things [former governor Bill] Ritter did was expand the oil and gas commission from nine to 13 members -- oh, and by the way, he got to appoint the extra four -- and regulation got tighter and tighter," recalled Lundberg.

The Coloradan, unsurprisingly, was very representative of ALEC membership's mood. The 2014 elections were very good to Republican state legislators, and to the party's state attorney general candidates. The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger, who covered ALEC's conference from inside meetings that were otherwise closed to press, had the best summary of the new ideas.

In one closed-door meeting, for instance, Sarah Magruder Lyle, a former Energy Department official who is now a vice president at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers association, made the case for a proposal that would scale back Obama administration rules on ozone. Her argument, a spokesman for her trade group said, was that the ozone rule was “threatening states’ economies while providing little benefit to the environment or to consumers.”

A separate proposal debated by ALEC participants would give legislatures a role in setting state limits for carbon emissions, including the requirement of a ­cost-benefit analysis.

Another proposed resolution would call for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with a committee of state officials. The idea was put aside after some corporate lobbyists cautioned that it could hurt ALEC’s credibility.

Note that it was the lobbyists, not the legislators, who balked at an idea that superficially might benefit their industry. The legislators needed no convincing to war with the EPA, and with the very structure of government that gives control of huge land tracts in western states to the feds. On Thursday, I sat in on a panel titled "Federalism: States Are 'Separate and Indepedent Sovereigns.' How Do We Act Like It?'" and listened to the conservative academic Robert Natelson describe the challenges faced by anyone who wants to exempt a state from a federal law. This meant, effectively, telling legislators not to call their challenges "nullification," because "it makes no sense to adopt a term that is laden with negative political baggage."

It did not mean abandoning the fight/ "How many of you in the states get a great idea, because you know the people -- you're close to them -- and you build this beautiful sandcastle in health care, or education, or industry, and the federal tide comes in and washes it away?" asked Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, chairman of ALEC's federalism subcommittee. "How long does it take before we realize we need a seawall?"

Ivory's vision of federalism only came into relief the next day, when he got the first question to Norton. He asked the former Interior Secretary why the states could not, should not, compel the Congress to change their charters and release more public land to state control, which would allow them to consider whether or not to allow energy exploration. After all, the states "east of Colorado" had done this, ages ago --  "they rallied together and compelled Congress to change their lands."

Norton, the government official now working with the outside lobbyists, had to slow Ivory down. It was far from clear that average citizens had the confidence in business, and skepticism of government, that the new GOP legislators had.

"I'm somewhat hampered by experience," said Norton, "Even during the Reagan administration, that went down in flames. I really think you need to consider more sophisticated methods... a lot of people are concerned that anything not in federal ownership is immediately going to be paved over."

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