At least one part of the Trump administration’s infrastructure and budget agenda is gaining steam on Capitol Hill.
A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol is rallying around a plan to funnel new or beyond-projection energy royalties into the more than 400 National Park sites nationwide, aiming to finally stamp out a crippling maintenance backlog.
Some conservationists and energy experts suggest the funding mechanism isn’t foolproof, but proponents are hailing it as a potential elixir for the National Park Service.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled new legislation last week alongside a set of senators, who are now pledging to team up with sponsors of other bills to build a formidable package. Committee leaders in both chambers—lawmakers who will be crucial to ultimately pushing through an overhaul—are also rapidly warming up to the idea.
“They’re doing the right thing by saying, ‘We have a revenue source that can sink the backlog problem,’” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop told National Journal. “There are other revenue sources, but the biggest one will still be energy production.”
Bipartisan support for environmental policy is passé on Capitol Hill. And the White House plans on the 2019 budget and an elusive infrastructure package—both of which were released roughly a month ago—landed with a thud at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Republicans and Democrats alike complain that the infrastructure proposal fails to pony up enough money, let alone generate new revenue. Congress, meanwhile, has poured cold water on the administration’s draconian budget cuts, choosing instead to pursue more traditional funding plans.
But now, the White House is finding some allies for a sliver of those infrastructure and budget plans, both of which included the framework for legislation spearheaded by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Steve Daines—a key partner to fellow Montanan Zinke.
“I believe this is an unprecedented day,” Alexander said on the floor last week after introducing the bill, dubbed the National Park Restoration Act. “If there’s an environmental burden, there should be an environmental benefit.”
That legislation will divert 50 percent of all energy revenue—fossil-fuel and renewable alike—that exceeds current budgetary expectation away from the General Treasury and into a fund dedicated to renovating national parks, meaning new production or spiked oil and gas prices would provide a boon to dilapidated buildings and neglected roads.
Meanwhile, Alexander and other supporters, who include Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Joe Manchin, are reaching out to another bipartisan team, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. Rob Portman. The pair have a bill that would deliver $500 million annually from revenues the government is already raking in through oil and natural-gas royalties, rather than revenue that exceeds projections.
“My view is we put [both] those into the energy committee, work with Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, who are also interested in National Parks, and make this is a signature victory for the American people during 2018,” Alexander said during the event with Zinke. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Maria Cantwell is the top Democrat.
Federal funding for National Park maintenance has dropped dramatically over the past decade, contributing to a nearly $12 billion backlog. National Park sites received 331 million visitors last year, falling just shy of the record-breaking total the year before. “Our parks are challenged. They’re being loved to death,” Zinke said.
Conservation groups are lining up behind the multipronged effort, but at the same time are voicing concerns that the legislative package could encourage lawmakers to further scale down regular appropriations for the parks. On top of that, those conservationists are skeptical that the Alexander approach would yield big dividends.
“Our chief concern is whether or not there would be reliable funding,” said Emily Douce, budget and appropriations point-person at the National Parks Conservation Association. “If oil prices go up or something like that, then there might be extra money that can be dedicated to address the backlog. So there’s a lot of uncertainty there.”
Douce’s concern is bolstered by energy analysts, who note that the oil and gas industry is beset by low prices. Those prices, projected to average roughly $62 per barrel of oil and $2.99 per million British Thermal Units of gas in 2018, are slight upticks from previous years, but nowhere near the more than $100 a barrel fetched just five years ago. High prices encourage lease purchases and industry investment. The Interior Department is planning to auction off large swathes of the Gulf later this month, and many energy analysts are predicting lackluster enthusiasm.
“I don’t expect a barn-burner,” said Justin Devery, an energy researcher at IHS Markit. “I don’t think [just above $60 a barrel] is going to turn this sale into a big sale, let’s put it that way—because the price is still kinda material.”
Industry offered up only $121 million in lease bids during the last lease sale, which took place in October. That figure pales in comparison to past sales, which, according to Devery, generated over $1 billion in bids. Royalty rates are the federal government’s piece of ultimate energy production, but the bidding volume showcases industry interest.
On top of that, an Interior Department panel is recommending a cut in royalty rates from 18.75 to 12.5 percent. That move aims to spur interest, but it also means energy production will deliver less money to the federal coffers and, under the legislative proposals for the National Parks, less toward undoing the maintenance backlog.
A number of energy experts said there’s virtually no way to tell how much revenue new energy development could yield.
Still, the plans are digging out a foothold in the legislative agenda. Bishop said he plans to hold a hearing this week or next on solutions to the backlog, including those proposed in the two bills. Murkowski said she plans to follow suit in the coming weeks.
“I think you’re going to see some really good headway between appropriations and the various proposals that are out there legislatively,” Murkowski told National Journal. “Having a funding stream that helps on an ongoing basis rather than just relying on the annual appropriations, I think, is smart.”
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