Biden’s oil and gas leasing pause will not curtail LWCF’s conservation obligations

Industry warning of underfunding is unfounded

A view of Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado from Sept. 29, 2013. (Bob Wick/BLM/CC 1.0)

On the same day that President Joe Biden signed an executive order which, in the face of climate change, called for a pause on new oil and gas leases on federal land and the reassessment of the leasing system, Western Energy Alliance denounced the order as a threat to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Fortunately, the concern by oil and gas trade association WEA for the underfunding of LWCF is totally unfounded and frankly a red herring.

LWCF, for those who may not know, is the most successful conservation program in the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1965, the program is responsible for protecting America’s irreplaceable lands and waters and ensuring that all Americans have access to outdoor recreation. The primary source of income to the fund is fees and royalties paid to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement by companies drilling offshore in federal water for oil and gas.

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In August 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law, guaranteeing that LWCF will be funded at $900 million per year. This was an historic moment for protecting public lands, and certainly the Continental Divide Trail, since LWCF funds have played an integral part toward completion of the trail, where some sections are forced off public lands. All told, GAOA directs $1.3 billion annually in oil and gas leasing and production revenue toward conservation. But none of that funding is impacted by any proposals to limit new leases. A review of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Department of the Interior Office of Natural Resource Revenue website reveals that the pause will have zero effect on LWCF funding.

The drilling scenario on the Outer Continental Shelf, even with no new leasing, shows that vast areas are untapped and remain available for new production — 77% of the existing shelf leases (1,752) have never been drilled.

Moreover, every year revenues from existing lease production far exceed amounts needed for full funding of LWCF. Over the past two decades, Outer Continental Shelf production has brought an annual average of just over $6 billion into the U.S. Treasury. Legally required deposits to LWCF plus all other obligations total about $1.5 billion each year, leaving about $4.5 billion in surplus Outer Continental Shelf Treasury revenues after all obligations are met. Even the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020 shelf revenues has not affected funds for LWCF and other obligations, with more than $2.5 billion remaining in the Treasury after all disbursements were made.

In Colorado, LWCF has already funded dozens of sites where Coloradans and visitors may recreate outdoors and learn about culture and history along the Continental Divide. Iconic places like the Garden of the Gods, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and Browns Canyon National Monument are just a few of the locations that could have been lost to incompatible development forever if not for these funds.

Public lands protections that LWCF provides are also an investment in Colorado communities. Gateway communities along the Continental Divide Trail, as well as many other towns and local businesses across the West, depend upon conservation protections to ensure the pristine outdoor experiences that attract throngs of nature lovers and recreationists. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us how important being able to get outside is for reconnection and recharging.

Biden’s moratorium is meant to begin to fix our broken oil and gas leasing system, so that we may better address the damaging impact of oil and gas drilling on the environment and climate, and ensure we all have opportunities to recreate on our public lands. Given the critical importance of land conservation in tackling the dual climate and nature crises, we no doubt need to prioritize investments in conservation and recreation and ease up on energy dominance policies that unwisely downplayed the dangers of climate change.

In the meantime, as we make this transition, the numbers show that there remain enough existing drilling permits to allow oil and gas companies to operate for years, and we can rest assured that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will continue to protect America’s great outdoors and cultural treasures.

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