Does Fossil Fuel-Funded Conservation Make it Harder to End Federal Leasing?Does Fossil Fuel-Funded Conservation Make it Harder to End Federal Leasing?

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For conservation groups that have long sought increased investment in America’s public lands, victories don’t get much sweeter than the Senate’s passage last week of what advocates call a historic piece of bipartisan legislation.

If the House also passes the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) in late July as expected, and if President Trump signs it as he’s indicated he will, then the 56-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will finally, permanently receive the $900 million a year it’s entitled to. Congress has routinely raided the program for cash, providing it less than half its intended allotment each year over the past decade.

The GAOA would also set aside $9.5 billion over the next five years to address another longstanding priority for conservation and outdoor recreation groups: tackling a nearly $20 billion backlog of infrastructure projects on national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal land.

Yet even as supporters hail the bill as the most consequential conservation legislation in a generation, skeptics are concerned about the funding source for its programs: revenue from fossil fuel activity on federal lands and waters. They view the legislation as a kind of devil’s bargain in which efforts to protect wildlife habitat and open space for healthy outdoor recreation rely on the very activities that threaten ecosystems and human health by generating pollution and driving climate change. And they warn that this tricky dynamic must not be allowed to sap the political will to reduce planet-warming emissions in part by halting oil and gas leasing on taxpayer-owned ground.

“There is definitely an element of hostage-taking: We can’t do a beneficial activity such as buying land without paying a ransom, which is to continue fossil-fuel extraction on public lands and waters,” says Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It creates a dependency moving forward that if you want to keep these funds going you have to keep drilling,” he adds. “That is obviously somewhat problematic given the crisis we face with our climate.”

Fossil-fuel production on federal property accounts for nearly a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions.


Drilling on public lands is a significant contributor to that crisis. A 2018 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that fossil-fuel production on federal property accounts for nearly a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, pledged to tackle that problem by banning new oil and gas permitting on federal holdings if elected. While a president’s power to end fossil-fuel extraction on federal property might not be as clear-cut as campaign rhetoric would suggest, Congress could do so, should control of the Senate shift to Democrats.

Turning off that cash flow might not be an easy political move, however, and lawmakers would need to find other funding sources for the LWCF if they curbed oil and gas leasing. Environmental advocates have yet to put forward a clear alternative funding source, although some say renewable energy royalties could pay for future land preservation. 

“Tying something as important as the long-term financial viability of our public lands to oil and gas exploitation—there is inherent contradiction in that,” said Kyle Tisdel, climate and energy program director at the Western Environmental Law Center. “While we can celebrate the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act and finally providing some long-term funding security for public lands, we at the same time need to be incredibly mindful of the impacts to our public lands from the climate crisis and a legacy of oil and gas exploitation.” 

For now, anyway, the GAOA promises a much-needed cash influx, advocates say. “This is the funding source we have and we should use it,” says Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society. “The problem has been it hasn’t been fully funded. Public lands agencies have been historically underfunded for restoration, maintenance, conservation and science.”

Despite having been fully funded only once in its history, the LWCF has a strong track record of expanding access to the outdoors—both in urban and rural areas—and protecting habitat for endangered birds and other wildlife. That’s among the reasons more than 850 conservation groups, local governments, and state and regional tourism boards signed a letter urging Congress to pass the GAOA, calling it “an unprecedented opportunity for a historic win for the American public and the places they care about.” Access to opportunities for safe outdoor recreation are particularly important during the coronavirus crisis, supporters say. 

Even if there’s not yet a clearly articulated, sustainable substitution for fossil-fuel revenue, that’s no excuse for failing to act quickly on climate change, says Drew McConville, senior managing director for government relations for The Wilderness Society. “We have to take bold action that transitions us away from fossil fuels to clean energy,” he says. “I’m sure there are going to be naysayers who use park funding and LWCF funding as an excuse to push against that. But I don’t see that holding back something as significant as addressing the climate crisis.”

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