Zinke’s $18 billion Fairytale: How offshore revenues aren’t a quick fix for the National Park Service

By Kate Kelly, Director of Public Lands at CAP

Although he has only been in office for a few months, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already developed a tenuous relationship with the truth. He promised Interior Department employees that he would fight for adequate funding, but ended up defending $1.6 billion in budget cuts to the agency. He referred to himself as an “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt” — an advocate for public lands — yet at nearly every opportunity, he has favored oil and gas interests over sportsmen and recreation. In short, his rhetoric rarely matches the reality of his actions.

In his stump speech, Zinke offers another example where his words are untethered from reality: his proposal to address the estimated $12 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog in one fell swoop with revenues generated from offshore drilling. Pointing to the $18 billion in offshore revenues the government collected in 2008 — nearly a decade ago–Zinke suggests an easy fix for the National Park Service is right under our noses.

A closer look at his proposal exposes it for being misleading at best, and a thinly-veiled attempt to justify opening up more of America’s offshore waters to the fossil fuel industry, at worst.

First, this over-simplified proposal suggests that Zinke controls a giant pot of offshore drilling revenue. He doesn’t. Nearly all of the funds from offshore drilling go straight into the U.S. Treasury’s general fund. Congress — not Zinke — is in charge of passing laws that dictate where that money goes. It would take a major (and unlikely) act of Congress to earmark offshore drilling revenues to address the maintenance backlog.

Second, even if Congress were to pass a new law, there is no guarantee that the funds would actually make it to the National Park Service. One need look no further than the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a program designed to conserve public lands and boost opportunities for outdoor recreation. In 1964, Congress passed a law that directs $900 million dollars of offshore drilling revenues into LWCF each year — yet almost every year, Congress diverts most of that money to other purposes.

Finally, Zinke is cherry-picking data that support his proposal. The $18 billion generated in 2008 was a major anomaly, due to high oil prices and other factors. To put things into perspective, the cost of oil reached historic highs of $145 a barrel in July 2008, compared to about $45 a barrel today. Unless Zinke has a magic wand to dramatically change the global market for oil, it’s misleading to point to the huge revenues generated in 2008 as anything other than an outlier.

It’s highly unlikely that Zinke is confused about how the revenue allocation process works or how the price of oil is set on a world market. What’s much more likely is that:

· Zinke needs somewhere to pivot when faced with defending the anemic budget he’s proposed for the National Park Service, which would cut 1,200 jobs and hardly makes a dent in the maintenance backlog. Rather than owning up to the tight budget, Zinke is offering a solution that only exists in an alternate universe.

· Zinke is using the National Park Service as a Trojan horse of sorts in order to open up more of our country’s coast to more oil and gas development. By directly tying the health of our national parks — something Americans know and love — to increased offshore energy development, Zinke is offering a clever, but disingenuous justification for his aggressive agenda to sell out America’s public lands and waters to the oil and gas industry.

There’s no doubt that our public lands and waters are facing challenges, including the National Park Service maintenance backlog. (See here for CAP’s recent analysis of the backlog numbers and why National Park Service itself should not be responsible for many of these costs.) But by recognizing funding from other sources — such as concessionaires and transportation bills — and with more sustained and targeted infusions of funding to address the parks’ most critical needs, addressing the backlog is not an insurmountable task. In other words, Zinke can start to make a difference now by taking a look at his own policies and budget proposals.

Zinke is right that we need smart, creative solutions to address the National Park Service backlog. But he does Americans a disservice by peddling an idea riddled with half-truths that is really part of a larger guise to drill more, drill everywhere.