House Republicans Hijacking Transportation Bill to Drill, Baby, Drill

On February 2, the ground hog will poke his head out of his hole and see the same old thing: Republicans in Congress pushing their “drill, baby, drill” agenda. That’s right -- only this time, the dirty energy-lovers will attempt to politicize the last bastion of bi-partisan policy: transportation.

Indeed, the federal surface transportation law has long been considered a relatively non-controversial legislative issue. Congress traditionally has put public interest before partisanship by enacting policy every few years that provides the billions of dollars needed to maintain and improve our nation’s roads, rails, bridges, and runways. Even in today’s extremely polarized political environment, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate recently voted unanimously to pass a transportation bill out the Environment and Public Works Committee. But GOP leaders in the House of Representatives are hell-bent on hijacking the process.

[UPDATE: The Hill reports on NRDC's efforts to stop the GOP from drilling the transportation bill.]

With the current transportation law expiring on March 31, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to mark up a multi-year highway/transit reauthorization this week. But Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) plans on making this bill so extreme that it has no chance of ever gaining bi-partisan support and becoming law. He intends to do this by adding to the bill a controversial measure to boost transportation funding by expanding oil and gas drilling in places where drilling is currently off-limits. So, yet again, House Republicans are going to hold a bill our country needs hostage to accomplish their oil above all agenda.  

Don't Drill the Transportation Bill

Specifically, Rep. Boehner’s bill would allow drilling pristine areas off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and redirect the anticipated royalty revenues to federal transportation. Given that Congress has yet to implement safety recommendations in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, this is simply a recipe for another devastating spill. Lastly, Rep. Boehner’s legislation would also open millions of acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for dirty oil shale development. This is an especially pie-in-the-sky proposal, to pin one’s hopes to generate revenue for transportation spending on an industry that has wholly failed to establish its commercial viability despite over a century of unsuccessful efforts.  

Interestingly, opposition to the GOP “drill and drive” scheme is not just coming from environmental advocates. From a purely economic standpoint, conservative groups like the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are very concerned about the precedent that would be set if highway funding were delinked from the gas tax, not to mention the massive transfer of energy royalty revenues from the general fund. As CEI’s Marc Scribner blogged:

“The myopic Republican plan to partially fund transportation improvements through oil and gas lease revenues – breaking with the long-established ‘user pays’ principle – will almost certainly increase political manipulation of transportation investments in the future, thereby increasing waste, fraud and abuse. The U.S. cannot afford to go down this road.”

Scribner added in a subsequent OpEd for National Review:

“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…America’s highways are far too important to be left to myopic political gimmickry.”

Some of the most ardent conservative politicians agree. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee and co-sponsor of the bi-partisan Senate transportation bill that passed last November, has repeatedly denounced Rep. Boehner’s gimmick. “There is no money in expanded energy production,” Inhofe told Politico last year. In other words, any new drilling revenues would be too little, too late to benefit the transportation budget. He reiterated this to Politico recently, explaining that “You can’t very well use revenues you don’t have.”

With no real support in the Senate on either side of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that Rep. Boehner’s dubious drilling bill is simply a poison pill that, if passed in the House as part of a transportation bill, would prevent the House and Senate from passing legislation critical to funding transportation. The last thing our transportation system needs these days is more gridlock.

America does desperately need to invest in our crumbling transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of the 21st century. Therefore, it is wrong for Rep. Boehner to pollute the legislative process by pushing 19th century energy solutions. From both an environmental and economic standpoint, he should stop trying to drill the House transportation bill.

For more reasons why Rep. Boehner’s proposal makes for poor environmental and economic policy, check out NRDC’s fact sheet on the issue.