In a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, key House Republicans and Democrats have reached agreement on a plan to tap billions of dollars in proceeds from offshore oil and gas drilling for protecting environmentally sensitive lands and natural resources.
Under the proposal, federal, state and local governments would receive a big boost in annual funding for a range of conservation activities, including land purchases, fish and wildlife rehabilitation, and historic preservation. Coastal states would especially benefit from the measure, but other areas could get funds for such things as constructing urban parks and protecting endangered species.
The significance of the new plan is that for the first time, Congress would earmark $2.8 billion of the roughly $4 billion raised annually from fees on oil and gas drilling for environmental purposes. Until now, that money has been siphoned off by lawmakers to fund other programs, and Congress has appropriated less than $600 million a year on the kind of conservation activities contemplated by the new bill.
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said the plan would finally give state and local government the means to meet the tough federal environmental standards imposed over the past two decades.
"You're talking about one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in the last 25 years," said Miller, who worked closely with committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) to craft the compromise measure.
The proposal still faces several legislative hurdles, including approval by both the full House and Senate. But the new agreement, which lawmakers said will be ratified today by the full committee, raises the likelihood that the measure will become law before the end of next year, officials said.
It also represents a sharp departure from the partisan bickering and legislative stalemate that has dominated this Congress. Lawmakers met behind closed doors for four months to hammer out the new plan, and Young and Miller have taken the unusual step of saying they will oppose all amendments being offered in the panel's markup today in an effort to protect the delicate pact.
"It's coming together because everybody was put at risk at some point in the process," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). "It's typical of how big bills happen around here, when everyone at least has more to gain in getting things done than in trying to stop it."
A comparable measure has support in the Senate, and the Clinton administration is cautiously optimistic that the plan may finally become law. Clinton has proposed to use $1 billion of oil revenue for land acquisition--known as his Lands Legacy program--but the House bill is far broader and contains a more detailed process for government land buys.
"We're very encouraged to see what we hope will be bipartisan progress on moving this process forward," said White House environmental adviser Roger Ballentine. "This is an issue that is far too important to let wither on the vine because of partisan differences."
The thrust of the Young-Miller plan would be to raise significantly the amount of money the federal government spends annually on land conservation. Under law, Congress is technically allowed to allot $900 millions a year from oil royalties for land purchases, but it has typically provided only $370 million.
The new proposal would ensure that the entire $900 million is used to buy environmentally sensitive land--and that the money is split evenly between the federal government and the states. Young noted that lawmakers had repeatedly used this money for other projects, and said the budget surplus provided Congress with an opportunity to protect the money from such raids.
"This is the time," Young said. "The money is there, and we've been spending it on other things."
Coastal states, including Alaska, California and Louisiana, would receive $1 billion a year to protect their coastal ecosystems, under the new plan. The measure gives $125 million for urban parks and other recreation sites, while $150 million would provide landowners with incentives not to develop their land in order to protect endangered and threatened species.
The bill still faces several obstacles. Members of the appropriations committees are concerned that the plan would carve out a special niche for conservation, limiting congressional flexibility in determining how federal funds should be spent. A similar carve-out was made last year for federal highway dollars.
Advocates of private property owners are concerned the measure would make it easier for the government to take away land used for fishing and hunting, or other purposes. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) said the bill "spells disaster for property owners."
But Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who opposes the bill, praised it for establishing a new oversight system for federal land-buying, in which all contested land sales are subject to congressional approval.
"If you do sit down and read the bill, it does some good things," Pombo said. "The problem we run into is I'm fundamentally opposed to the federal government buying more land."