The federal government will be allowed to begin charging oil and gas companies significantly more in royalties for drilling on public lands next March under a compromise reached yesterday by White House and GOP negotiators.
The agreement breaks what had been a two-year impasse over the Interior Department's efforts to impose what it describes as a fairer and more environmentally sound system for charging oil companies for the extraction of resources from publicly owned lands.
The administration and allies in the conservation community say the current fee system is woefully inadequate and that oil companies have been underpaying the federal government as much as $68 million a year. But Republicans have successfully blocked the new regulations for more than two years, contending that the administration's plan was little more than a new tax.
Republicans had sought to postpone implementation of the new formula for at least six months while it was further studied, but as part of the agreement struck yesterday, the new formula would take effect March 15.
The compromise language will be part of a final deal on the federal budget, which has been hung up in part over disagreements on environmental issues. Before breaking for the evening, the two sides also settled disputes over the amount of land that can be used by mining companies to dump waste and the timing of new regulations governing hardrock mining.
The mining waste issue has been of particular concern to environmentalists. An Interior Department legal opinion favored limiting such waste sites to five acres, but Republican negotiators said that only could apply to mining applications submitted after May 21, 1999. The administration prevailed in having the restrictions apply to mining operations begun after 1997.
In addition, the Republicans went along with about $400 million of the $430 million the administration sought for land aquisitions as part of President Clinton's program for purchasing environmentally sensitive land--a substantial increase over last year's spending.
"We're happy with the funding and we're very happy the major [environmental provisions] are resolved," said a senior administration official.
Aides to House and Senate Republican lawmakers with jurisdiction over the Interior Department confirmed the outlines of the agreement last night. A House GOP aide conceded that the White House got most of what it wanted--primarily by dragging out the talks while Republicans are eager to wrap up business. "They can just about dictate everything they want . . . if they wait long enough," the aide complained.
With the two sides now in agreement over most issues, including U.N. dues and funding for education, negotiators departed the Capitol for the evening hoping to reach a final agreement today. House and Senate leaders voiced confidence that the agreement would be ratified by Congress by the end of the week.
"It will be one of those things where you'll have lots of reasons to be for it and some reasons to be against it, too," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) "We've got to finish it up and hopefully we can get it done by Wednesday."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said: "As we look at the overall package, Democrats have every reason to be pleased."
But even with the most contentious issues behind them, negotiators were struggling over how to offset the nearly $6 billion of additional spending obtained by the White House and whether to impose a small, across-the-board spending cut the Republicans favor.
And the deal does face potential obstacles in the Senate, where a handful of Democratic senators are threatening to tie up all or part of the spending plan in an effort to win concessions for their home states.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) has served notice he will hold up most pending legislation--including the spending bills--if Republicans persist with plans to include provisions extending a dairy compact that benefits New England states and overturning an administration pricing reform plan. A Kohl aide said late yesterday that no progress had been made in resolving the dispute.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is also threatening to hold up the entire legislative calendar as leverage to get more disaster relief for hurricane-ravaged North Carolina, including both money for flooded farms and relaxation of rules so the government can buy up flood-damaged housing. But negotiators added about $500 million for hurricane relief, and an aide said Edwards was "making progress" on the issue.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has blocked action on the foreign operations spending bill in hopes of persuading the administration and negotiators to guarantee money for coastal states such as Louisiana as part of a proposed land and water conservative program that is financed by revenue from offshore oil and gas production. While Landrieu aides said no deal has been cut, other sources said a compromise is likely to be worked out.
Although he is not threatening to hold up action, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) is still pressing for language that would permit coal mining companies to shear off mountaintops and dump the debris in rivers and streams, and some negotiators have expressed concern the dispute could prove an obstacle to the final deal.
CAPTION: Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) leaves Appropriations Committee meeting.