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Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Through the Ages

President Thomas Jefferson negotiates the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and ushers in a long political saga over how to manage the great new expanses of land.

Congress creates the Public Lands Committee, and Ohio Sen. Jeremiah Morrow (Democratic Republican) becomes its first chairman. It is one of the Senate’s original standing committees. For the next 193 years, only two Senators from Eastern Seaboard states will serve as chairman of the committee or its successors.

Alabama Sen. William Rufus King (Jacksonian), who later served as vice president under President Franklin Pierce, leads the committee as a debate between how to distribute public lands roils 19th-century politics. Eastern Seaboard lawmakers favor selling the land to raise money to pay debts, while Western lawmakers favor generous land grants to settlers.

Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (D-Mo.) authors the log cabin bill, allowing settlers to pre-empt 160 acres of land, provided they build a log cabin. The bill is included in a compromise Distributive Preemption Act of 1841.

Congress creates the Department of the Interior at the suggestion of former Sen. Robert Walker (D-Miss.), a previous committee chairman and then-Treasury secretary. The Public Lands Committee has primary jurisdiction over the new department.

Following up on the committee’s previous Distributive Preemption Act, the Homestead Act liberalizes the terms of land distribution in the West. Sen. Justin Morrill (R-Vt.) sponsors the Morrill Act establishing land grants to create universities in the Western states.

The Yellowstone National Park becomes the first national park created under the Department of Interior.

The U.S. Forest Service is created by the Land Revision Act and Forest Reserve Acts of 1891, which also modified earlier land settlement and distribution laws.

President Theodore Roosevelt by executive order creates the first wildlife refuge. Congress later adopts the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 for the international protection of birds.

Sen. Reed Smoot (R-Utah), who is periodic chairman of the committee, sponsors the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, establishing the national park system under the Department of Interior.

The Public Lands Committee assumes the Geological Surveys Committee and becomes known as the Public Lands and Surveys Committee.

Sen. Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) organizes the committee’s investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall’s improper leasing of Wyoming oil rights caused the scandal, and Fall eventually goes to prison. Sen. Thomas Walsh (D-Mont.), a junior member of the committee minority, leads the panel’s investigation. The investigation establishes modern precedents for future Congressional investigations.

Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) assumes the chairmanship of the Public Lands and Surveys Committee. He is one of the legislative architects of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Wagner and Sen. William Sprague (R-R.I.), who is chairman from 1873 to 1875, are the only East Coast Senators to chair the committee.

The Public Lands and Surveys Committee becomes the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, adding mining, irrigation, reclamation and territorial authority to its jurisdiction. Sen. Hugh Butler (R-Neb.), a longtime opponent of Alaska statehood, assumes command of the newly renamed committee.

The committee shepherds statehood legislation for Alaska and Hawaii through the Senate.

Sen. Henry “Scoop— Jackson (D-Wash.) becomes chairman of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. He serves as chairman until 1981. Jackson also authors the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

The Middle East oil embargo roils energy debates, and energy topics assume a primary role on the committee’s agenda. The Federal Energy Administration is created, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assumes nuclear energy supervision.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act authorizes the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. An oil reserve was originally proposed in 1944 by then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.

The committee is reorganized as the Energy and Natural Resources Committee with Jackson remaining as chairman. Natural gas pricing and regulation, coal production and hydropower are added to the committee’s jurisdiction. The Department of Energy is created.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) becomes chairman of the committee for the first time and alternates the chairmanship with fellow New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) until 2007, when Democrats retake control of the Senate and Bingaman takes over the gavel. The committee is recognized for its collegial and relatively nonpartisan processes.

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