Conservation bill creates strange bedfellows
Environmentalists are rallying around a major conservation bill that derives much of its funding from their archenemy: the fossil fuel industry.
The Great American Outdoors Act — passed by the Senate last week and slated for a House vote next month — would dedicate $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Most of that money, however, comes from offshore oil and gas royalties.
Conservation advocates say they support the legislation despite the funding source, arguing it puts to good use revenue that is already being collected by the federal government.
“The idea has always been that the government will take the proceeds, the royalties, from offshore drilling, which is an activity that’s harmful for the environment, and then reinvest those proceeds into conservation efforts,” said Steve Blackledge, the senior director of Environment America’s conservation program.
“Will there be a day when that source dries up? We sure hope so. But until then, it’s a practical solution that’s endured for decades,” he added.
The bill, supported by politicians ranging from President Trump to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would permanently fund the LWCF and address a maintenance backlog at national parks.
The LWCF provides money to protect endangered species habitats, develop parks and outdoor recreation sites and protect sensitive forests — issues that have at times pitted environmentalists against the energy industry.
In fiscal 2019, nearly $880 million in royalties collected by the federal government from offshore drilling leases were allocated to the LWCF. The program received similar funding amounts in previous years.
The other part of the bill, which would set aside billions to address a maintenance backlog at national parks over a five-year period, would be funded by payments from federal land and water leases through which oil, gas, coal or alternative or renewable energy are produced.
Many environmentalists oppose drilling regardless of the site, but offshore is particularly controversial following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people. Opponents of offshore drilling argue the practice comes with significant environmental and safety risks, while proponents counter that it bolster’s the country’s energy infrastructure and independence.
Environmentalists who support the LWCF say they hope to one day move beyond the uneasy relationship between the oil and gas industry and conservation, but for now it’s what works.
“We obviously oppose incentivizing oil and gas drilling,” said Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “But the fact is, as it currently functions, LWCF is funded by existing offshore oil and gas revenue. As long as existing oil and gas leases are operating, directing fees to these vital conservation purposes makes sense.”
Maintaining that funding stream will be crucial to the effectiveness of the LWCF.
If a future presidential administration were to lessen or eliminate offshore drilling, which made up about 16 percent of U.S. crude oil production and 3 percent of dry natural gas production in 2018, the program’s funding could be put at risk.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters but wouldn’t get rid of existing leases.
That’s a position supported by some environmentalists who also back the LWCF.
“The next presidential administration must make stopping all new offshore drilling a top priority, and we look forward to working with that administration to identify alternative revenue streams to fund the LWCF and address the national parks maintenance backlog,” said Athan Manuel, the director of Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, in a statement.
Under Biden’s proposal, companies may also have to pay a higher rate for royalties to the government for their oil and gas leases “to account for climate costs.”
Industry players said the LWCF serves as a reminder of the importance of oil and gas production in the U.S.
“I think it’s a recognition of the impact that the production of U.S. energy including oil and gas has on important programs that the government helps fund,” Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy economics and regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said of the Great American Outdoors Act.
The National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), which represents offshore energy companies, said it supports the legislation.
“America’s conservation and outdoor recreation legacy is one that is reinforced by a healthy offshore oil and gas industry, a predominant source of funding for conservation programs across all 50 states,” NOIA President Erik Milito said in a statement. “It is now even more important to protect Gulf of Mexico energy production, as without it, billions of dollars of funding for beloved conservation and recreation programs, such as the Land & Water Conservation Fund, will disappear.”
Environmentalists say that after securing funding for the LWCF, they should start considering new funding streams.
Blackledge, from Environment America, suggested that alternative funding could come from tourism or other activities related to public lands.
“The whole political fight right now is to secure full funding and permanent funding. In the future we’re going to have to think hard about where the revenue sources come from,” he said.
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