US senators compromise on conservation funding bill

Washington, DC�US Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said Friday they have agreed on a Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), ensuring the Senate energy committee will approve the bill at a markup July 18-19. The bill would earmark $3 billion/year of federal offshore oil revenues, which now go into the general fund, to finance various government conservation programs.

Oil groups have supported the bill in the hope it would broaden public support for Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) exploration and production.

Senate passage of the bill is in doubt. Several Western Republicans have promised to filibuster it on the floor, claiming the federal government would use some of the funds to buy more lands in their states.

The House of Representatives approved a similar bill in early May.

Murkowski, Senate energy committee chairman, said, "This bill began as a way to remedy a tremendous inequity in the distribution of revenues generated by offshore oil and gas production from the federal OCS.

"While revenues are shared 50-50 [by the federal and state governments] if oil and gas are developed on [federal] public lands in a state, there is no sharing with development on the OCS. This measure directs a portion of the OCS royalties and revenues to coastal states and communities who shoulder the responsibility for energy development off their coastlines."

Murkowski said his compromise with Bingaman, ranking Democrat on the panel, stipulates that lands acquired under CARA in western states, and elsewhere, must be from willing sellers and must be approved by Congress.

"The Department of the Interior will have no discretionary funds to spend on land acquisition. It all must be appropriated, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will have the right to review the list of acquisitions."

Murkowski added that the law would not create any new authority for federal agencies to apply their regulations to privately owned land or to take private property for public use without just compensation.

The bill provides $805 million/year for coastal impact economic assistance programs, $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and $350 million for state wildlife conservation and restoration programs. Also, $75 million will go toward an urban and community forestry program, $150 million for the Historic Preservation Fund, $125 million for restoration of National Park Service facilities, $50 million for forest purchases, and $50 million for a farm and ranch protection program.

And $325 million will be used to replace taxes that counties lose because federal lands are tax exempt, $60 million for the Youth Conservation Corps, $250 million for coastal conservation programs, $100 million for fisheries management, $25 million for coastal reef protection, and $50 million for rural community assistance programs.

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