Great American Outdoors Act Poised to Pass Congress Despite Last Minute Effort to Block It

Photo: National Park Service

The Great American Outdoors Act, which provides $900m annually for parks and conservation of lands and billions to repair our national parks, is expected to pass the House of Representatives today despite a last-ditch effort to stop it by Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah.  The bill creates a dedicated stream of monies for parks by siphoning off revenues from royalties collected on federal oil and gas leases. But according to a new report, those royalties are much lower than in the past due to COVID-19 — indeed the Administration has even waived royalty paymentsPolitico reports Bishop argues it is “ludicrous” to move forward when the revenue is “unstable.”

Why This Matters:  Permanent funding for parks and conservation is long overdue — on top of the environmental benefits, it creates jobs and helps ensure that every American has access to nature.  Tying the $900m fund to fossil fuel development is paradoxical and the funding stream will decrease as we reduce our drilling on federal lands and waters. Right now, however, it is important to secure permanent funding — the source could change later as we begin to develop funding from renewable sources on federal lands.  Bishop is being obstructionist — it’s not that he cares about stable funding for parks.

Royalties Are Down

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue reported offshore oil and gas royalty collections of $100 million in May, which is 84 percent lower than royalty collections in May 2019. “The core provisions of H.R. 1957 rely upon unobligated receipts from energy development on federal lands and waters, and the CRS has just confirmed that these revenue streams have evaporated due to the pandemic,” Bishop said in a statement Monday, according to Politico.  The revenue for the Land and Water Conservation Fund has always come from oil and gas royalties — the law would make the funding permanent.

Many have questioned the perverse incentives created by using energy revenues for conservation, arguing that this might make oil and gas development more acceptable.  But the logic of the program also made some sense — it was a way to repay the public for the development of public lands.  Given the push to end drilling on public lands and the likelihood that royalties are likely to decline over time, this funding model will need to change. Right now the revenues are down because the Trump Administration has actually been reducing or even excusing royalty payments altogether.

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