- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2022

DENVER — A conservation program hailed by the Biden administration as a force for combating climate change is being jeopardized by the president’s own tight-fisted approach to oil and gas leasing, critics say.

The 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, the largest federal conservation program in 50 years, is funded almost entirely by oil and natural gas production on public lands. Since Mr. Biden took office, leasing sales have slowed to a trickle.

Sen. Steve Daines, the Montana Republican who sponsored the measure, warned that the anemic sales threaten the success of the act, which dedicates up to $1.9 billion annually to tackle the growing maintenance backlog at national parks and public lands.

“President Biden’s misguided, dangerous energy policies not only stifle American energy production leading to higher prices at the pump and threaten our national security, they also cut critical funding for conservation of our nation’s public lands secured by my bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act,” Mr. Daines told The Washington Times.

The Western Energy Alliance released a report last week flagging a “disconnect in the conservation agenda of this administration.”

“The president wants to preserve our nation’s treasured public places yet fails to acknowledge that almost all the conservation funding is provided by the very energy sources he seeks to shut down,” said alliance President Kathleen Sgamma. “Promises of ‘no more drilling’ would mean funding for national parks conservation and infrastructure would disappear in the coming years if those policies are fully enacted.”

The report, titled “Conserving the Great American Outdoors,” said oil and natural gas in 2021 accounted for 94% of funding for the Great American Outdoors Act, or $2.63 billion. Only $11.5 million was provided by revenue from renewable energy, including wind and geothermal sources.

Last year, oil and natural gas provided $4 billion of the $4.4 billion available from onshore production along with $3.7 billion from offshore revenue.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has praised the act, which also improves recreation opportunities on public lands by allocating $900 million in permanent annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Through the Great American Outdoors Act, we are making critical investments that will create tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation,” Ms. Haaland said in a statement on the Interior Department website.

The alliance report called support for the act “a blind spot,” given the administration’s efforts to clamp down on oil and gas leasing in the name of fighting climate change.

The Interior Department held an onshore leasing sale in June and an offshore leasing sale in November 2021 despite the congressional mandate for quarterly sales. The administration has yet to submit a five-year offshore leasing plan to replace the one that expired this summer.

In its first 19 months, the administration has leased fewer acres for onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling — 0.13 million acres — than any other since the Kennedy administration, according to a September analysis by The Wall Street Journal.

President Obama was a veritable fossil fuel enthusiast, leasing 7.25 million acres during the same period. President Trump leased 4.4 million acres. Eclipsing all others was President Reagan, whose administration leased a whopping 47.25 million acres.

“One wonders if President Biden is aware that his policies could wipe out conservation and funding for national parks?” the report said.

Disputing that argument is Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, who pointed out that the Interior Department disbursed $21 billion in fiscal 2022 energy revenue this month for various funds and projects. He said it was the second-largest distribution since 1983. That included a record $4.37 billion from the New York Bight offshore wind lease sale in February.

“The energy revenue from last year alone would be enough to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for more than two decades,” said Mr. Weiss. “The Biden administration is moving ahead with more renewable energy leases and auctions, and that revenue will be able to address any declines in oil and gas revenue as America shifts to a renewable energy economy.”

He blamed the oil industry for stoking global temperatures. “Kathleen Sgamma is right when she says there is an existential threat to America’s parks and public lands. It’s climate change,” he said.

“It’s simply laughable for drillers to suddenly portray themselves as saviors of America’s public lands,” Mr. Weiss said.

Ms. Sgamma said renewables are nowhere near being able to cover the act’s costs. The fund can receive up to $1.9 billion annually, calculated as 50% of energy royalties generated that year from onshore production.

“That’s just royalties, not leasing revenue, which is all the wind revenue was except for a paltry $5 million in royalties,” she said in an email. “Leasing revenues don’t go into the formula. Depending on when those royalties come in throughout the year, they’ll contribute to the fund until the $1.9 billion cap is reached.”

She said it would “be great if renewables could provide funding, but if conservation relied on geothermal at $18 million and wind at $5 million (no royalties are received from solar), then only a measly $11.5 million would have gone into conservation.”

The impact of Mr. Biden’s policies won’t be felt immediately, the report said.

“It won’t happen suddenly, but in the coming years as the existing inventory of leases runs out, production will slow and eventually be eliminated,” the alliance report said. “Royalties will then decline, creating a gap in available revenue for conservation.”

Signed into law by Mr. Trump after winning bipartisan support in Congress, the Great American Outdoors Act has made an impact at some of the nation’s best-known national parks.

The act directed $219 million to Blue Ridge Parkway for bridge replacement, repairs and erosion control, $204 million to Yellowstone National Park for repairs to historic buildings and roads, and $145 million to Yosemite National Park for campgrounds, water systems, parking and erosion control.

This year, the National Park Service estimated the backlog of deferred maintenance at $21.8 billion, well above the 2020 estimate of $13 billion. House Republicans called for an explanation.

“Biden and the Democrats’ anti-American energy policies are a direct attack on our Montana way of life. We must reverse course,” Mr. Daines said.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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