Greens fume over Obama’s bid to divert restoration funding

By Phil Taylor | 02/04/2015 01:20 PM EST

National environmental groups today blasted an Obama administration proposal to divert more than $3 billion in future oil and gas revenues due to Gulf Coast states to pay for land conservation, rural counties, wildlife grants, coastal restoration or other "national priorities," warning that such a move would stymie coastal restoration projects in Louisiana.

The proposal tucked within Obama’s $4 trillion fiscal 2016 budget request has set off a firestorm of opposition among Gulf Coast lawmakers and drew a scathing review this morning by the editorial board of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Today it was opposed by the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, groups that have invested heavily in restoring the eroding Gulf coastline.

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"We are encouraged by and committed to the elements of the President’s budget that take on climate change, support the development of clean energy, and fully fund the woefully underfunded Land and Water Conservation Fund and other crucial conservation initiatives," the groups said in a joint statement. "But we are disappointed by the budget’s proposed diversion of critically needed and currently dedicated funding for coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River Delta."

Other environmental groups appear ambivalent about the proposal. Numerous conservation and sportsmen’s groups are pushing for dedicated funding for LWCF, but they have yet to articulate a way to pay for it.

The $3 billion that would be diverted from four Gulf states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — would fund accounts like LWCF, which acquires and preserves lands nationwide, as well as state and tribal wildlife grants and payments in lieu of taxes (PILT), a major priority for rural counties with federal lands, but not so much along the Gulf Coast.

The controversy underscores the challenges of stretching scarce conservation dollars across the nation and satisfying the administration’s geographically diverse green base.

Obama’s proposal asks Congress to amend the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which promises the Gulf states 37.5 percent of royalties from new offshore drilling starting in 2017 — up to $500 million per year.

According to the Times-Picayune, Louisiana voters amended the state’s constitution to dedicate future offshore royalties to coastal restoration, part of a $50 billion, 50-year master plan to rebuild barrier islands, marshland and beaches that defend against floods.

"This proposed budget undercuts the administration’s previous commitments to restore critical economic infrastructure and ecosystems in the Mississippi River Delta, where we are losing 16 square miles of critical wetlands every year — a preventable coastal erosion crisis," the environmental groups said. "Those wetlands, and the culture and economic infrastructure they protect from hurricanes, will be lost without complete and ongoing intervention."

They argued that the Mississippi River Delta is a "national treasure" that supports billions of dollars in seafood production, marine navigation and energy production.

The Obama proposal is unlikely to pass, given that it is strongly opposed by Louisiana Republican Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy as well as former Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act but is no longer serving in the Senate.

It is merely the latest rift between the administration and Louisiana lawmakers.

Last Congress, the Interior Department declined to support a bill by Landrieu and current committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to share more offshore energy revenues with Gulf and other coastal states. The agency said the proposal was neither fair nor fiscally feasible.

But it infuriated Landrieu, who said coastal states should be entitled to the same unlimited revenue-sharing that inland states receive — which is nearly half of federal mineral revenue.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell defended Obama’s budget proposal Monday, saying offshore revenues belong to the entire nation.

"The outer continental shelf is owned by all Americans," Jewell said. "We believe that needs to be re-examined to look at what is a fair return to taxpayers across the whole United States."

The proposal would raise an estimated $3.069 billion within the next decade, beginning in 2018, Interior said.

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