Letter to Budget Committee

March 2, 2006
09:31 AM
In the Senate, each committee is required, under the Budget Act, to annually provide "Views & Estimates" for programs under its jurisdiction.  Today is the deadline.  Here's what Sen. Bingaman, on behalf of the Senate Energy Committee Democrats, wrote to the Budget Committee's chairman and ranking member:

March 2, 2006

The Honorable Judd Gregg, Chairman
The Honorable Kent Conrad, Ranking Member
Committee on the Budget
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510-6100

Dear Chairman Gregg and Senator Conrad:

    I generally concur with Senator Domenici’s statement of the views and estimates of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the fiscal year 2007 budget.  I believe they fairly reflect the views of a majority of the Committee.  I write separately, however, to offer a few additional views on the President’s budget proposal as it relates to the management of the public lands.  While I and other Democrats on the Committee oppose other proposals in the President’s budget request, including the inadequate funding for implementation of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (including the Department of Energy’s weatherization program), the excessive request for the poorly defined Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, and proposals to raise money by increasing federal power rates and accelerating repayment of Bonneville Power Administration’s debt, this letter will focus on our public land concerns.

    Our public lands are a unique and valuable national resource.  They provide the nation with timber, mineral, energy, and recreational resources.  They are a priceless capital asset.  Reflecting that fact, our public land laws require that they be managed for the lasting benefit of this and future generations.

    In several instances, the President’s budget loses sight of this important principle.  In at least four significant areas, the President’s budget proposes policies that reap short-term financial gains or savings at the expense of the long-term maintenance of the public domain.

Sale of public lands to raise revenue

    Under current law, public lands are to be retained in federal ownership, unless disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.  43 U.S.C. 1701(a)(1).  The Bureau of Land Management is authorized to sell certain lands identified for disposal, and to retain and use the proceeds from these sales to purchase other lands and pay certain administrative expenses.  43 U.S.C. 2304 and 2305.  

    The Administration is proposing to amend the law to eliminate the limitation on which lands can be sold, and requiring the Bureau to return 70 percent of the proceeds to the Treasury.  In short, the Administration is proposing to sell off the public lands to help pay the Government’s annual operating costs.   As Senator Domenici has said, a majority of the members of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is unlikely to support such a scheme and it should not be included in the budget resolution.

Sale of public lands to fund county school payments

    Six years ago, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to make payments to certain rural counties in the Pacific Northwest to make up for revenue losses resulting from diminishing timber harvests on public land forests in the affected counties.  Those payments are currently scheduled to end this year.  As Senator Domenici indicated, legislation to extend these payments is now pending before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and a majority of our members is likely to support it.  The Administration, however, has proposed to fund this program by selling off National Forests lands.   Once again, the Administration’s proposal would sell off a valuable capital asset to pay annual operating costs.  All Democrats on the Committee  would oppose this proposal.

Use of the budget process to circumvent environmental protections—ANWR

    The Administration has once again assumed enactment of legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.  While Senator Domenici is correct that a majority of the Committee probably supports such legislation, the Senate has repeatedly considered similar legislation and failed to enact it in the past.   The Senate remains deeply divided over this issue, and the Budget Committee should not assume its enactment this year.

    Democrats on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources are acutely aware of the nation’s energy needs.  We support energy production  where it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner.  But most of us do not believe it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  

    By assuming enactment of legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development in its budget reconciliation instruction to the Energy Committee last year, the Budget Committee created a situation in which the legislation considered by the Senate exempted oil and gas development in the Refuge from the normal mineral leasing and environmental laws that govern oil and gas development on all other public lands.  The expedited procedures governing consideration of reconciliation bills, coupled with the arbitrary scoring decisions of the Congressional Budget Office, frustrated attempts to consider thoughtful, relevant amendments to the ANWR provision.  Use of the budget reconciliation process to open the Refuge to energy production effectively, if unintentionally, precluded consideration of constructive amendments or the application of even minimal environmental protections.  

    The Budget Committee should not include ANWR in its budget assumptions this year.  
If the Senate ultimately decides to permit oil and gas production in the Refuge, it should do so under regular order, so that it may give appropriate consideration to amendments and provide for necessary environmental protections.

Failure to provide for the future—the Land and Water Conservation Fund

     Congress set up the Land and Water Conservation Fund over forty years ago to ensure that present and future generations of Americans would have access to adequate outdoor recreation opportunities.  We were a nation of fewer than 200 million people when the Fund was established, but our farsighted predecessors recognized that additional parks and open spaces needed to be set aside for our growing population.  To meet that need, they set aside the proceeds from the sale of surplus federal land and part of the receipts from oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf into the Fund for the purchase of both federal and state parks and recreation areas.  The idea was “that the revenues from one natural resource which belongs to all the people of the United States ... should be reinvested in outdoor recreation areas and developments which become a part of the permanent estate of the Nation for the use, benefit, and enjoyment of all its citizens of this and future generations.”

    Under current law, Congress may appropriate up to $900 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund each year.  16 U.S.C. 460 l-5.  Of that amount, at least 40 percent is to be available for federal land purchases and up to 60 percent is to be made available to the States.  16 U.S.C. 460 l-7.   

    The Administration is proposing to spend only $91 million – 17 percent of the authorized amount – on federal land acquisitions.  This is one of the smallest requests for authorized funding in the history of program.  In addition, the Administration is proposing to eliminate funding for the State grant program entirely.  

    The continued growth of our population, the relentless expansion of our cities and suburbs, and the ever-increasing demand for land, energy, and natural resources in the years ahead require us to act today to set aside parks and open space for health and enjoyment of future generations.  As our predecessors understood when the set up the Land and Water Conservation Fund, land for outdoor recreation is rapidly depleting, for all time, and once it is lost, it is lost forever.


                                                                                                                                Jeff Bingaman
                                                                                                                                Ranking Democratic Member