U.S. Treasury confirms $20B balance for LWCF, but is it real?

By Phil Taylor | 10/20/2015 06:05 AM EDT

The Land and Water Conservation Fund that expired earlier this month for the first time in its 50-year history currently contains nearly $20 billion, according to the U.S. Treasury, which maintains the program’s balance sheets.

Whether that is "real" money available to be spent on federal land acquisitions, private land easements and state recreation projects depends on whom you ask.

But the money — collected mostly from offshore oil and gas lease rentals and royalty receipts — does exist, according to the Treasury.

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The $19.8 billion balance also includes a relatively small amount of revenues from the sales of surplus federal property and the motor boat fuels tax, Treasury said.

There’s been significant debate over how LWCF’s expiration on Sept. 30 will affect the program’s funding.

This much is undisputed: Money from offshore drilling is now going directly into the general Treasury rather than LWCF. That means the $19.8 billion can only be reduced until Congress reauthorizes the program.

What is less clear is how the program’s expiration will affect appropriators’ willingness to fund it.

Despite LWCF’s expiration, it is still being funded at approximately $300 million a year under the continuing resolution. While it is authorized at $900 million, the program has rarely been appropriated at that level.

Democrats, certain pro-LWCF Republicans and conservationists say reauthorization is urgent, warning that the program has been disconnected from its main funding source — oil and gas. The premise in enacting the fund in 1965 was to use revenue from the depletion of one natural resource to permanently protect other scenic and ecologically rich resources.

But those who favor reforming LWCF — arguing a greater portion of money should go to states or that some portion should be used to maintain existing federal lands — say there’s no rush to reauthorize it.

They cite the $20 billion. LWCF has collected roughly $37 billion since 1965 but less than half has been appropriated, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

"When we wake up tomorrow, after allowing LWCF’s authorization to expire, nothing will have substantively changed," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in a floor speech in late September before blocking a motion to extend LWCF by unanimous consent.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has been the chief opponent of a clean LWCF extension in the House, has pledged to introduce a bill to reauthorize the fund this year, though with notable reforms.

The status quo, at least from appropriators’ perspective, has not changed, said Chris Gallegos, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

"Land and Water Conservation Fund projects can move forward despite the ongoing effort to reauthorize the program," he said.

House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) has noted that there are other expired federal programs — he cited the FBI — that are unauthorized and yet continue to receive congressional funding.

Yet he also signaled it would be more difficult to fund LWCF in the absence of new revenues from offshore drilling. The $20 billion in remaining LWCF funds, he said, are "as real as the money in the Social Security trust fund."

"There’s been money paid into that account, on paper," he said. "But that money’s been spent."

Yet appropriators "still possess the same power to appropriate funding under LWCF," said Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw.

"The process has not changed for appropriation post-expiration," she said. But "without reauthorization, the highly successful program needlessly faces an uncertain future."

The longer it is expired, the more vulnerable it will be to spending cuts, said Alan Rowsome, director of government relations at the Wilderness Society.

And regardless of whether appropriators continue funding it, the fact remains that $2.5 million per day in oil and gas revenues are now going to the general Treasury rather than LWCF, he noted.

"The reality is all this leads to a very urgent situation where LWCF does need permanent authorization and a permanent funding solution," he said. "Rather than discussing whether [the $20 billion] exists or not, we should be talking about alleviating the problem."

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