Energy & Environment

Drill and drive? GOP seeks solution for highway cash


Republicans are toying with the idea of bringing back a plan from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pay for America’s highways with an expansion of oil and gas drilling offshore and on federal land.

With conservatives ruling out an increase in the federal gas tax, Republicans are casting around for another way to shore up highway funding before it expires in May.

{mosads}One idea being floated is Boehner’s drilling-for-roads swap, which failed to gain traction in the past amid opposition from Democrats.

“I think it’s a great idea to increase domestic energy and rebuild America’s infrastructure,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It’s something we should absolutely explore.”

“It’s certainly something worth talking about,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has responsibility over federal land and the country’s outer continental shelf.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the Speaker has an “open mind” about using drilling funds for roads, after having all but ruled it out last year, two years after he was one of the main proponents.

While the proposal fits neatly into the Republican priorities of increasing domestic energy production and building infrastructure, transportation advocates argue it wouldn’t bring in anywhere near the money needed for the nation’s highways.

Advocates estimate that the federal government needs to spend about $15 billion more each year simply to maintain the current highway system, let alone improve it.

Fuel taxes of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel are the main sources of funding for the Highway Trust Fund. Those taxes haven’t been raised in more than two decades, and their buying power has declined significantly as roads have deteriorated.

While some Republicans have indicated they are open to raising the gas taxes, opposition in the party is strong. Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), for one, has ruled it out.

That’s leading the GOP back to the drawing board to look at other proposals, such as a repatriation tax holiday to encourage companies to bring money back to the United States.

“Any mechanism that the Speaker and leadership can agree upon to help finance transportation for an extended period would be welcome,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who was chairman of the transportation panel from 2011 to 2012.

“Passing an increase in the gas tax is not going to float, and it’s not going to solve your problem, because now you have a million cars a year that are paying no gasoline tax, and that’s increasing.”

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), another member of the transportation panel, said he’s “willing to look at anything, and I think a lot of members are.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is open to the drilling-for-roads idea, as long as any legislation opens new areas to drilling, said Robert Dillon, her spokesman.

“We wouldn’t put it off the table if there was a way to open new federal areas and designate a portion of the highway fund,” Dillon said. “The key here is it has to be new, it has to be federal areas. We wouldn’t support a new tax on the oil industry.”

Business and conservative groups say that while more oil drilling would be a positive development, the $4 billion to $5 billion in yearly revenue wouldn’t close the shortfall in highway funding.

“It wouldn’t bring in anywhere near the amount that’s needed,” said Janet Kavinoky, who directs the Chamber of Commerce’s transportation policy team.

“So it could potentially be part of the solution, but it’s not going to solve the problem.”

The Chamber is pushing Republicans to raise the fuel tax, which it says could provide the necessary revenue while preserving the “user pays” concept that has been behind highway funding for decades.

“While that could certainly help plug the hole a little bit, really the only thing that’s out there that is transportation-related, substantial enough and can be dedicated to the trust fund right now is federal gasoline and diesel taxes,” Kavinoky said.

The Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, wants Congress to increase oil drilling offshore and on federal land, but that money shouldn’t go to highways, said Emily Goff, the group’s transportation policy analyst.

“The reason why is that you are breaking the link between people who are benefitting from a system and people who are paying into a system,” she said.

“Gas taxes right now are paid by drivers and they go to highways that are built for them. If you use oil drilling revenue for that purpose, it removes the accountability, it removes the transparency, and politicians can then use that revenue on a slew of pet projects and they won’t be accountable to anyone.”

The GOP is likely to encounter fierce opposition from environmentalists and Democrats if they rally behind the expansion of oil and gas drilling.

“Their idea is a way to kill two birds with one stone,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee. “To get out from under the political heat of how they fund the trust fund, and two, get another green light for gas and oil.”

Grijalva said his main opposition to the proposal is that it would harm the environment.

“The problem is that it, implicit in that argument is that there is no climate change, that carbon emissions don’t cause a problem, and that we keep doing the things we’re doing over and over again with no environmental consequences or economic consequences,” he said. “That premise is false.”

Tags Boehner John Boehner Lisa Murkowski Lou Barletta Rob Bishop
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