Offshore drilling has become a sticking point as senators attempt to move forward on a conservation measure.
A pitched battle is set between rank-and-file Republicans and President Trump over a conservation package that could shape the Senate majority in the next Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is teeing up a pricey bill to slash the national-parks maintenance backlog and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a prized 55-year-old program that authorizes urban green spaces and rural recreation areas.
That legislation could hit the floor in the coming weeks, although the schedule for the upper chamber is up in the air after McConnell scrapped the upcoming recess to hammer out a coronavirus economic package.
But Republicans who represent the Gulf of Mexico region are angling to tack legislation, dubbed the Coastal Act, onto the McConnell-endorsed LWCF package that will boost state-revenue intake for future offshore drilling. And some coastal Democrats are also digging in for a fight.
Those efforts could disrupt the delicate balance struck on the package. And a failure to make the LWCF package law could ding Republicans locked in tough reelection battles.
Trump exhorted lawmakers to pass the package last week despite having repeatedly proposed to nearly zero out LWCF funding in White House budgets. The president praised Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, both of whom are facing off in November against popular politicians who’ve served as governors in their respective states.
Now, those lawmakers are working to shore up support for the package. “We’re working on it right now. It’s a good bipartisan bill,” Daines said.
But some Republicans aren’t falling in line behind the president. So far, only 16 Republicans support the package, and the total number of cosponsors is just shy of the 60-vote threshold needed to get bills to the Senate floor.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, the lead sponsor of the Coastal Act and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Energy Subcommittee, is opposed to the LWCF package in its current form. And his Louisiana colleague, Sen. John Kennedy, championed the offshore revenue legislation on the floor Thursday.
“Louisiana is drowning,” Kennedy said. “We’re not asking for extra. We’re asking for equity.” Inland states receive 50 percent of oil and gas revenue for federal-land oil and gas operations.
A Kennedy spokesperson declined to comment on whether he’ll support or oppose the LWCF package with the revenue addition.
The Cassidy legislation would increase the state share of offshore revenue to 50 percent, up markedly from the 37.5 percent share codified into law as part of the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act. The legislation will also give Alaska 50 percent of the revenues from energy production in its Outer Continental Shelf.
Gulf representatives say the revenue is used for resiliency projects, like coastal restoration and hurricane protection, that help to safeguard regional fishery and energy industries that serve the nation.
The anger over the LWCF package is also rising in the House.
“It’s a complete fail to have a discussion on LWCF and parks maintenance without including that in there,” said Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican who spearheaded the state’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
“The singular revenue stream that funds LWCF is derived from the offshore oil, yet the offshore region is unsustainable,” Graves added. “You’ve got to invest in the region to ensure the resiliency of the revenue stream.”
Supporters of the conservation package want to restrict it to include only permanent LWCF funding and the Restore Our Parks Act, legislation that carves out $1.9 annually for five years to clear out maintenance backlogs in the parks system and other federal lands.
The LWCF portion of the package will give $900 million to the program annually, on top of rapidly rising, separate mandatory funding from offshore drilling that could reach $100 million in 2020. That’s $2.8 million a year in new spending. LWCF has funded well-known sites like the Flight 93 National Memorial, American battlefield preservations, and many parks and urban spaces.
Colorado and Montana are two states that stand to benefit big from the package. And observers say Trump’s support is designed to notch Gardner and Daines wins in November. Those races could go a long way in determining the Senate majority in 2021.
Trump has continued his support for the two senators since the LWCF-package tweet. He is tentatively planning to host Gardner at an LWCF White House event Friday after having earlier canceled a Colorado rally. Also on Thursday, Trump praised Daines in a fundraising email paid for by a Sen. Rick Scott’s political action committee. Other embattled Republicans, like Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, are signed on board the package.
Supporters on Capitol Hill, as well as conservation advocates, say revenue tweaks will upend a carefully negotiated deal over the package.
“This package is long overdue and should get done as soon as possible. Adding any provisions, whether revenue sharing or anything else, could jeopardize this whole package. It’s as simple as that,” said Alex Taurel, conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters. Taurel added that the revenue legislation could spur more offshore drilling, which environmental groups like his oppose.
Lawmakers who represent offshore-drilling states, however, are not the only ones poised to oppose the LWCF package.
Seven of the 11 Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee opposed permanent LWCF funding at a markup last year. Many Republicans have qualms about permanent funding.
“Funding for everything ought to be reviewed annually. That’s always been my view,” Sen. James Risch said.
Conservative advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation are urging members to oppose the package over fiscal concerns and opposition to federal land purchases.
Democrats could throw a wrench in the whip count for the conservation package, too. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama said he’s considering the revenue legislation in determining his position on the LWCF package. Other coastal Democrats are also reluctant to jump on board.
Sens. Jack Reed, Tom Carper, Brian Schatz, and Sheldon Whitehouse are currently absent from the list of cosponsors. Whitehouse said the program sends disproportionately more money to inland states. He’s aiming to amend the legislation to address that.
“I’m worried that if we fund it permanently we never get a chance to address the bias against coasts that is baked into the LWCF,” said Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island. “Now with climate change, sea-level rise, fisheries moving about—all of those issues—coastal concerns are much more acute.”