By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives began debating legislation on Wednesday that would speed up approvals for drilling in the Arctic while removing regulatory hurdles that have stymied development of the area's vast oil and gas resources.
The bill, which could sail through the House but faces a tougher time in the Senate, would force the Environmental Protection Agency to approve or deny applications to drill on the outer continental shelf within six months.
"Current impediments have delayed development of the Beaufort and Chukchi sea for over five years," the bill's sponsor, Republican congressman Cory Gardner, said in a speech on the House floor.
"These are areas that have already been approved for drilling; the revenues for the leases have already been collected by the federal government," he said.
The bill would also eliminate the authority of EPA's Environmental Appeals Board to weigh in on the Arctic permits.
That appeals board scuttled Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea this year, when it revoked a key air permit.
The board's decision was the latest in a series of setbacks Shell has encountered since it began picking up significant offshore Alaska leases in 2005.
Shell has recently submitted two new exploration plans to begin drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012 and 2013.
Lawmakers who support the legislation say Shell's challenges in the Arctic show the need for reform. The bill is also part of a broader effort by Republicans to speed up the permitting process since last year's Gulf oil spill cast a pall over offshore energy exploration.
The House is expected to vote on the bill either later on Wednesday or some time on Thursday. While the bill is expected to pass the House, the measure will likely have difficulties passing the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The White House came out against the House bill on Tuesday, saying it would curtail the authority of the EPA to ensure that oil production on the outer continental shelf "proceeds safely, responsibly, and with opportunities for efficient stakeholder input."
Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, is working to gain support for similar legislation in that chamber, however.
"We have companies that have spent more than five years and billions of dollars attempting to conduct offshore exploration and production in Alaska, but have been unable to secure the necessary permits from EPA," Murkowski said in a statement about her bill.
"It's clear that this process is not just overly costly and time-consuming, but simply does not work," she added.
(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)