Sunday, March 18News That Matters

Here’s what Ryan Zinke’s public lands infrastructure investment actually means

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to defend the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2019.

As part of his opening testimony, Zinke applauded President Trump for “keeping the promises he made to the American people,” and said that the proposed budget represented keeping another promise — rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

This is the largest investment in our public lands’ infrastructure in our nation’s history,” Zinke said. “Let me repeat that, this is the largest investment in our public lands’ infrastructure in the history of this country.”

But public lands groups caution that Zinke’s investment in public lands infrastructure is misleading, and obscures the fact that the Trump administration’s budget calls for a 15 percent decrease in funding for the Department of the Interior. The budget also proposes cutting 2,000 National Park rangers, despite 2016 being a historic year for National Park visitation.

Zinke has proposed creating an investment fund to deal with the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog, which exceeds $11 billion.

The investment wouldn’t come from the Interior Department’s budget, but from legislation that would create a fund for public lands infrastructure projects. And that fund would narrowly apply to infrastructure projects — things like repairing bathrooms or building new roads — rather than broad day-to-day projects like visitor protection or research.

And while former parks employees note that addressing the maintenance backlog is crucial for the upkeep of public lands, they say it’s disheartening to see the investment push go hand-in-hand with a cut to the department’s budget.

“On one hand, there is a promise to provide an investment through energy development,” Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, told ThinkProgress. “On the other hand, the very reason we have the deferred maintenance problem is lack of staff, and this budget cuts the staff even more. Those things seem to be in opposition to each other.”

To fund “the largest investment in our public lands’ infrastructure in our nation’s history,” Zinke is backing a bill that would set aside $18 billion in revenue from energy produced on federal lands. The bill, introduced by ​Senator​s​ Lamar Alexander (R-TN)​ and Angus King (I-ME)​, and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), would create a special fund within the Treasury that could be used for programs associated with the maintenance backlog.

But experts caution that federal energy projects might not produce enough revenue to fully fund Zinke’s investment proposal. In 2008, the Department of Interior generated about $18 billion in offshore oil and gas development and extraction — but that same revenue stream would be difficult to match today because the price of oil has dropped from over $140 a barrel in the summer of 2008 to just $61 a barrel this week.

Low oil prices also mean that opening up new areas for oil development — like the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which Zinke singled out as a potential stream of revenue for the fund — might be less attractive to fossil fuel companies than onshore production, like in Texas or North Dakota.

“Eighteen billion dollars is a fantasy number,” Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, told ThinkProgress. “The idea that you could spark a giant stampede of new production while oil prices are where they are today, it’s just fantasy land.”

And while the infrastructure investment fund would ostensibly set aside up to $18 billion over 10 years, it’s far from the largest investment in public lands infrastructure. When adjusted for inflation, the Civilian Conservation Corps cost nearly $58 billion. This program ran from 1933 to 1942 and was responsible for thousands of infrastructure projects across federal land.

“Even if Secretary Zinke’s magical number came true, it still wouldn’t be close to the largest investment in public lands infrastructure,” Weiss said.

Rather than pull money from future fossil fuel extraction, the Sierra Club’s Athan Manuel argued that the Trump administration should work with Congress to fully fund both the Interior Department’s budget and the National Park Service’s backlog.

They need to go to the Hill and tell Congress to fund the park maintenance backlog and the challenges we are facing on our public lands,” Manuel, who serves as director of the Sierra Club’s Land Protection Program, told ThinkProgress. “No one is going to argue that we should spend less money on our public lands, if you make the argument aggressively enough. That’s what a Secretary of Interior should be doing, not the performance that he gave today.”