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House GOP bill includes protection for Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

Francisco Manzo works on a barge filled with oysters pulled from Drakes Estero in 2012.

PD FILE, 2012
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.

A Republican bill in Congress intended to boost jobs and tax revenue through expanded offshore oil drilling, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and other measures also would allow Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to stay in business, saving 30 jobs on the Marin County coast.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said in a written statement that it would create 2 million jobs and generate more than $2 trillion in federal taxes over the next 30 years by "increasing access to our domestic resources."

Vitter's measure would open closed areas of the continental shelf to oil and gas leasing, allow energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expedite approval of the $7 billion pipeline carrying Canadian heavy crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries.

The final section of the bill, titled the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, would grant the oyster company in the Point Reyes National Seashore a permit for up to 20 years.

It also says that the 2,500-acre estero "shall not be converted to a designated wilderness," apparently reversing the intent established by Congress in 1976.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose district includes Point Reyes, called the bill "an environmental wrecking ball."

Huffman, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, noted that the bill also would prohibit California from limiting Central Valley Project water deliveries based on the Endangered Species Act.

Huffman said he found it "pretty surprising" that the oyster company's permit was included in a bill focused on much larger issues.

Kevin Lunny, operator of the embattled oyster farm on Drakes Estero, said Thursday that he did not ask for and was not advised of the bill's reference to his permit, a source of controversy for years in Marin County.

"It's what members of Congress do, I guess," Lunny said. "We didn't know it was coming."

Lunny is fighting in federal court a National Park Service order to shut down his business, which harvests $1.5 million worth of oysters a year from the estero.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear his appeal the week of May 13.

His case is being handled without charge by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Cause of Action, whose executive director previously worked for a charitable foundation run by one of the billionaire Koch brothers, known for their conservative politics.

Legal experts say the oyster farm case could set a precedent that promotes commercial use of national parks and wilderness areas throughout the western United States.

Huffman, a former environmental attorney, said that the Vitter bill and its backers are "bad company for Kevin and his supporters to keep." Co-sponsored by 22 other Republican senators, Vitter's bill is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Western Business Roundtable, Americans for Limited Government and Americans for Prosperity.

"The whole bill is terrible," said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has fought to remove the oyster farm from the Pacific Ocean estuary that is abundant in wildlife, including a harbor seal colony.

Trainer and Huffman said the bill might win approval in the Republican-controlled House but not the Senate. Their concern is that some provisions might be separately tacked onto "must-pass" pieces of legislation.

Lunny said most of his support over the years has come from North Bay Democrats who favor sustainable agriculture.

"I've never had support from the Republicans," he said.

Lunny said he does not agree with all of the provisions in Vitter's bill, which was introduced in the House by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Public Lands and Environmental Regulation subcommittee.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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