CORE Act finally makes it to US Senate, but doesn’t pass committee

Colorado wilderness expansion effort could still receive a full vote after surviving effort to strip Thompson Divide protections from bill

Sen. John Hickenlooper speaks Tuesday in support of the CORE Act before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Courtesy image

The CORE Act received its first committee vote before the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, a moment Sen. John Hickenlooper described as a high watermark for the long-debated bill.

The CORE Act, which stands for Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy, aims to protect roughly 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado — adding 20,196 acres to the Eagles Nest, Ptarmigan Peak, and Holy Cross wilderness areas in Eagle County, and preventing new natural gas leases in the Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs — and creates new wildlife conservation areas and a first-ever National Historic Landscape designation for Camp Hale.

It has passed the U.S. House of Representatives four times.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources contains 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, so there are few surprised when committee votes result in a tie.

Such was the fate of the CORE Act on Tuesday — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the legislation won’t receive a vote in the full Senate.

The tie allows Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to file a discharge motion which, if approved, would absolve the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of its duty to recommend the bill for a vote of the full Senate. It can then be placed on the Senate’s executive calendar, which would allow the Senate to proceed with consideration of the bill for a final vote.

“This is a high watermark for what we hope is the final hurdle before it passes and becomes law,” Hickenlooper said of the CORE Act in his opening remarks on Tuesday.

Thompson Divide survives test

Republicans were steadfast in their disapproval of the CORE Act’s creation of areas where new mining and mineral leases won’t be issued on federal lands.

“We need to increase American development of energy and critical minerals,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. “Now isn’t the time to be permanently withdrawing federal land.”

Roughly 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area, which the CORE Act seeks to protect from the impacts of new oil and gas leasing, was debated separately in a proposed amendment to the CORE Act, which would exclude the Thompson Divide provisions from the bill.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah referenced a recent quote from President Biden in offering the amendment, in which Biden pledged to use “every tool at our disposal” to limit the effect on gas prices in the U.S. caused by sanctions against Russia.

“Back in 2014, the Forest Service estimated that this area still has a high occurrence of oil and gas resources with a high potential for continued development and production,” Lee said. “In the words of the President, we should be using every tool in the toolbox to boost domestic production, and not stifle it.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, of New Mexico, said his state is the No. 2 producer of oil and gas in the nation.

“I wish I could say that as we have increased our production that some of the savings would find their way to the gas pump. They have not,” Heinrich said.

Hickenlooper reminded his colleagues that he spent a number of years working in the oil and gas industry. The Thompson Divide area “has some natural gas, but the cost of exploring and putting in a pipeline would never justify production,” Hickenlooper said. “There’s just not enough production that would come out of it. We also respect existing drilling rights, so the currently held leases would be protected, if someone wanted to drill on those leases, they remain effective and intact.”

The amendment received a 10-10 vote on party lines and was not added to the CORE Act.

Camp Hale not supported by Republicans

In an ironic twist, the bill’s celebration of the WWII training ground at Camp Hale — once seen as a way to help in garnering conservative approval of the bill — was listed as a reason for Republicans in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to deny support.

“I understand the importance of historic preservation by Congress, but Congress has never designated or even debated this idea, this concept, this definition, of a National Historic Landscape,” Barrasso said. “And for this reason I oppose the bill and encourage my colleagues to do the same.”

Hickenlooper said the locally-driven nature of the bill creates a model for how federal land designations should be made in the future.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, agreed with Hickenlooper in the approach to seeking a locally drafted public lands bill, and said despite voting against the bill, she hopes to see it pass it in the future.

“My hope is that we will eventually be able to get this one and perhaps several of the others across the line,” she said.

‘Listening to local voices’

Sen. Angus King, a Democrat from Maine, said he was perplexed by Murkowski and other Republicans’ rejection of the CORE Act.

“I thought one of the core principles of your side was local control, respecting and listening to local voices,” King said.

Murkowski said it could be “a function of the time we’re in right now,” referencing the war in Ukraine.

“Everybody in Europe is looking to this country saying how can you help us from a resource perspective, whether it’s natural gas or whatever our resources might be, because we are a resource rich state,” she said. “And so when they see that there are efforts at the administrative level to take off the table rather than to be a more broader global friend and alley in this, I think that that is part of the discussion. We’re trying to figure out where is this balance here.”

Manchin said Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet deserve a lot of credit for the widespread support the CORE Act has received.

“To get agreement from both the citizens and the industry — they both agreed — is an accomplishment you should be proud of, so hopefully we’ll keep working to get a positive reaction here,” Manchin said.

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