The Advocate (Baton Rouge) – 6/24/01
Joan McKinney

Last week, Louisianians again began the torturous process of trying to pass legislation giving coastal oil and gas states a permanent and guaranteed share of energy royalties from federal offshore lands. For Louisiana, the potential "take" is about $300 million a year.

As he did in the last Congress, Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources chief, Jack Caldwell, was at the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to launch the Conservation and Reinvestment Act bill -- that is, to relaunch it. A version of CARA passed the House last year, passed the U.S. Senate Energy Committee but never got to the Senate floor. It was blocked by forces from the political right, left and middle.

On the right, private property-rights activists objected to huge new sums of federal money earmarked for federal and state land-buying. On the left, some (although not all) environmental organizations objected to the property-rights concessions in the CARA bill, and they remained suspicious that coastal royalty-sharing would be an incentive for new drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. In the middle, the pragmatists on congressional budget and appropriations committees refused to create an environmental "entitlement." Automatic OCS royalty-sharing for states would mean less money for other federal programs and less political power for the appropriators and budgeteers, who like to control the flow of federal funds.

The property-righters and the budgeteers got the ear of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who refused to send the CARA bill to the Senate floor. The anti-CARA elements of the environmental movement got the ear of then-Vice President Al Gore, and the White House withheld crucial support.

Last week, the property-righters and the budget-austerity forces emerged again at the House Natural Resources Committee. However, the pro-CARA forces outnumber them on the House committee, which, in all likelihood, will approve CARA again. Given that CARA already has 218 House co-sponsors, CARA also has a good chance of again passing the House.

After that, CARA enthusiasts may encounter as many problems -- maybe more -- in the Senate and at the White House as they did last year. The change in the Senate to Democratic control and the change in the White House to Republican control have not yet produced breakthroughs for CARA. In fact, those changes have produced new complications.

The former Senate Energy Committee chairman, Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, was a coastal-state CARA advocate. The new chairman, Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, has supported CARA, but he does not have Murkowski's fervor for the bill.

In addition, the Senate Energy Committee has a habit of taking one issue at a time. Until it disposes of its current legislative interest -- a national energy policy -- the committee might ignore CARA. That would run counter to the admonition of U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, who said last week that "it is important that we get to the Senate early."

So far as CARA supporters can tell, the royalty-sharing legislation has not yet received the serious, sustained attention of anyone at Cabinet level.

In the Senate, some CARA advocates are quietly musing about alternatives. They speculate that, perhaps, a "coastal impact" slice of CARA could be inserted into an energy policy bill. That would be a strategy of stand-alone royalty sharing for the coastal states that suffer environmental degradations traceable to OCS development. Later, perhaps the comprehensive CARA, or elements of CARA (the bill funds everything from urban parks to historic preservation to hunting-and-fishing programs) could be reassembled later in the legislative process.

On first blush, there are at least two political problems with that approach: 1. There are too few coastal states to pass stand-alone coastal royalty sharing. 2. Environmentalists and other special interests that have been given slices of a comprehensive CARA bill would bail out if the bill gets chopped up.

"CARA is, in fact, a package," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., last week. "It is not designed to be cherry-picked ... It is important that we make every effort to sustain the entire package." 

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