Bill Would Fund Parks, Hockey Rinks to Rescue Oceans

Published July 1, 1999

Only politicians would try sell the idea that the best way to reduce environmental threats to the oceans is to spend more money on ice hockey rinks, parks, and other recreational facilities in cities. But that’s precisely what some members of Congress have proposed to do with the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 1999 (CARA), ostensibly aimed at offsetting the environmental effects of off-shore oil and gas drilling.

Introduced in the House by Don Young (R-Alaska) and John Dingell (D-Michigan) as H.R. 701 and in the Senate by Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) as S. 25, CARA would allow coastal states to retain a portion of the $4 to $5 billion in oil royalties generated every year from drilling on the outer-continental shelf (OCS).

Although it was originally envisioned that OCS revenues would be split between the states and the federal government, with 60 percent going to the states and 40 percent to the federal government, the states never saw much of the money. Last year, for example, the six states that have drilling off their coasts collected just $65 million–between 1.3 and 1.6 percent of the federal government’s OCS revenues. The OCS royalties have instead gone to the federal government’s general fund where, until recently, they were used to mask the real size of the federal budget deficit.

The rationale for sharing drilling royalties with coastal states is clear: those states are the most vulnerable to environmental risks posed by oil drilling. As Mark Van Putten, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, noted in recent congressional testimony, “the lion’s share of [environmental] impacts [from OCS drilling] are borne by America’s coastal zones. These coastal zones are home to over half the nation’s population, play a critical role in absorbing flooding and blunting storms, provide important spawning habitat for commercially valuable fisheries, and harbor a disproportionate fraction of rare and endangered wildlife.”

Yet coastal states aren’t the only ones that would benefit financially from CARA passage. While the bill would set aside 27 percent of OCS revenues for an “Outer Continental Shelf Impact Assistance Fund,” to be used for mitigation of environmental damage caused by oil drilling, 23 percent of the revenues would be allocated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program used to buy private land for outdoor conservation, recreation, and development projects, including indoor sports complexes, urban parks, and basketball courts. Alaska’s Young noted, “In Alaska, we could use [LWCF funds] for access trails, hockey rinks, and other projects.”

No one is pretending that there is a scientific rationale for funding city parks or hockey rinks to mitigate the environmental harm caused by offshore drilling operations.

Only six states have OCS drilling operations offshore. CARA can’t pass with their votes alone, so the bill’s sponsors decided to sweeten the deal for other states–particularly for those with large congressional delegations. CARA provides that roughly 25 percent of LWCF financial assistance would be distributed equally to states, while 8.4 percent would be granted based on state population size. Another 16 percent of the funds would be reserved for the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Program, and 28 percent would be reserved for Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture land acquisition in the eastern United States.

CARA’s sponsors have also worked hard to get anti-sprawl environmentalists and the Clinton administration on board. The bill’s funding for land acquisition fits nicely with the administration’s Lands Legacy and Livable Communities initiatives, aimed at preserving green and open spaces to curb “urban sprawl.”

The land acquisition provisions of the legislation have property rights groups concerned. CARA sponsors insist the bill doesn’t threaten private property rights, as it specifically requires “willing sellers” for all land purchases. But property rights advocates note that local, state, and federal government officials have become quite adept at applying regulations, using legal maneuvers, and targeting land purchases to convert unwilling sellers to willing sellers.

The Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed two decades ago, was also supposed to protect property owners’ rights–including the rights of miners. But as Ray Krieg, who owns property within the boundaries of several national parks and forests, noted in recent congressional testimony, “Within only seven years of passage of ANILC, the National Park Service acquiesced to a friendly lawsuit filed by environmental organizations and mining in all Alaska’s national parks was shut down. The miners then suffered years of insincere and biased mining claim validity determinations–all designed to exhaust the resources of claim holders and increase their risk and expense.”