Conservation program at center of energy bill fight

Conservation program at center of energy bill fight
© Getty Images

The long-term fate of a major conservation program could end up being a key sticking point in negotiations over federal energy policy reform. 

House lawmakers last week appointed members of an energy conference committee, the first step toward finalizing a deal with the Senate on an energy overhaul bill. 


Democrats support including in a final deal the Senate’s long-term extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a popular public lands program. 

But most House Republicans last week voted to block Democrats’ motion to support such an extension. Key Republicans on the energy conference committee have said they'll look to water down efforts to keep the program on the books without major reforms. 

“The best chance is none at all,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopTrump signs major conservation bill into law Overnight Energy: House passes major conservation bill, sending to Trump | EPA finalizes rule to speed up review of industry permits House passes major conservation bill, sending it to Trump's desk MORE (R-Utah) said of potential LWCF provisions in an energy bill compromise. 

“It’s not going to be mandatory, and it’s not going to be permanently reauthorized. I would love to try and do some reforms to the program. I don’t know if that’s too heavy of a lift to do in a conference report.”

A final energy bill deal is a long way off — the Senate has yet to appoint conference committee members — and given this year’s restricted congressional calendar, an energy package might not make it across the finish line at all. 

But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump says he'll sign USPS funding if Democrats make concessions Overnight Energy: EPA finalizes rollback of Obama-era oil and gas methane emissions standards | Democratic lawmakers ask Interior to require masks indoors at national parks | Harris climate agenda stresses need for justice Bipartisan senators ask congressional leadership to extend census deadline MORE (R-Alaska) said she hopes to at least convene a conference committee after the Memorial Day recess. Once such a panel comes together, an LWCF extension will be on members’ agenda. 

The LWCF is a $300 million program that preserves federal lands around the country and funds outdoor recreation. Lawmakers agreed to extend it for three years in December’s year-end spending deal. 

Senators, though, included a permanent reauthorization of the program in the energy bill they passed in April. They also changed the program’s funding stream to mandatory rather than discretionary, taking it out of appropriators’ hands.

While popular with the public — and often earning broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill — some Western Republicans have looked to overhaul the LWCF, arguing it gives the federal government too much power over state and local land holdings and conservation efforts.

Bishop led the charge against a Democratic motion last week to instruct House conference committee members to accept the Senate’s LWCF language in a final deal. 

“The way we’re doing it right now is just so damn stupid,” he said of the program in an interview. “I’m not going to allow it to continue on, and I’m certainly not going to make the stupidity permanent.”  

Bishop said his goal now is to stop the Senate’s LWCF provisions from coming out of a conference committee. He will sit on the panel, and the four other Republican Natural Resources Committee members joining him all voted against the Democratic motion on Wednesday. 

LWCF supporters insist they have politics on their side. 

The Senate approved the energy bill — and the LWCF extension — with 85 votes in April, and 63 senators, including 16 Republicans, batted down an amendment from Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to set new limits on the LWCF’s spending powers. 

Depending on what a final deal looks like, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he doubts House Republicans would sink an energy bill filled with otherwise agreeable provisions just because of the conservation fund. 

“If, by some miracle, there is bipartisan consensus and there’s been some negotiations to strip some horrible things out, and to retain that Senate portion — which was bipartisan on the Senate side — if it were to come back that way, I think the Republicans here would be hard pressed to vote against it,” he said. 

Michael Hacker, a spokesman for the LWCF Coalition, said conferees would risk losing Democratic votes for a final energy bill if the package doesn’t include an extension of the conservation fund. 

If a compromise bill incorporates provisions unpalatable to conservatives, he said, final passage would depend, in part, on Democratic votes.  

“It’s less about people and more about the political situation, and the political reality is an energy bill conference can’t succeed without LWCF,” he said.

What’s more, supporters note that many Republicans already favor extending the program. Besides the Senate’s bipartisan energy bill vote, 25 House Republicans voted for Democrats’ LWCF motion on Wednesday, showing that there is GOP support for a long-term extension of the Fund. 

Murkowski acknowledged some Republicans’ aggression toward extending the conservation fund. But she said she hopes energy conference committee members will be able to come to some consensus on the LWCF regardless.

“This is one of those issues that generates some very substantial support — I think we saw that play out on our side — and then you have its detractors,” she said. 

“I have been one who has said LWCF is fine, but I’m going to insist on some reforms. I think Mr. Bishop is in the reform camp, so I think we’ve got some room to run.”