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Even Conservatives Agree: Don't Drill for Roads

Rob Perks

Posted December 9, 2011 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, U.S. Law and Policy

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I've taken pains to poke holes in the reckless and frankly ridiculous House Republican legislative proposal to tie federal transportation funding to expanded oil and gas drilling. Here is my new fact sheet on the issue. But as I've pointed out before, it's not just environmental advocates who are up in arms over this Big Oil boondoggle. While we may be at odds with the Competitive Enterprise Institute on drilling, both NRDC and CEI find ourselves in lockstep on the GOP's illogical transportation funding scheme.

In a scathing OpEd published today by National Review, CEI's transportation policy analyst Marc Scribner writes:

"Congress is well known for going down roads to nowhere. In the case of the upcoming highway-bill reauthorization, that may be true in a more literal sense. On this occasion, it is Republican members who have come up with a misguided piece of highway robbery that breaches their own longstanding principles. House Republicans have proposed expanding domestic fossil-fuel extraction on federal lands and in offshore areas, and depositing much of the royalty revenue into the federal Highway Trust Fund."

Scribner goes on to slam the GOP's "short-sighted" plan for undermining the long-standing "user pays" principle of the Interstate Highway System. Because of the escalating costs of our country's transportation needs and declining revenues generated by the federal tax on gasoline purchases, economic experts warn that the Highway Trust Fund could be insolvent by 2013. The last time Congress raised the federal gas tax — currently set at 18.4 cents per gallon — was 1993 and since then inflation has reduced its buying power by 40 percent.

Scribner suggests a perfectly rational solution:

"A quick, temporary fix would be to raise federal fuel-tax rates, but this is a political non-starter in the current political and economic climate. If House Republicans are truly serious about improving our nation’s highway infrastructure without increasing federal tax rates on fuel, they could devolve more transportation funding responsibility to the states and support more tolling."

Some states have raised their own gas taxes in a desperate attempt to make up the funding shortfall. Even more have added tolls and increased fares, among other alternative steps to raise much-needed transportation revenues. But such efforts will ease their budget burden only marginally. Meanwhile, at the federal level, House Republicans have stepped in with their misguided plan to raise more money for transportation by diverting royalties from new drilling offshore and in pristine places like Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Unlike NRDC, CEI is not concerned about the potentially devastating environmental impacts of more drilling. Scribner takes aim over the fiscal malfeasance presented by the GOP's proposal:

"Instead, House Republicans appear ready to undermine one of the more fiscally conservative funding mechanisms in existence. A provision of the 1974 Budget Act requires that the Highway Trust Fund receive 90 percent of its revenue from users in order to maintain its exemptions from appropriations meddling. Assuming drilling royalty revenues are great enough to close the near-term funding gap, the House Republicans’ proposal would push the percentage of user-based Trust Fund revenue to well below 80 percent...Weakening this standard calls into question the purpose of having a federal trust fund in the first place...Rather than learning from our previous mistakes, we would be making them all over again."

Scribner implores Republicans to reconsider “drilling for roads” because "America’s highways are far too important to be left to myopic political gimmickry."

On that, CEI and NRDC can agree!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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