U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio recently voted for an amendment to gut the Antiquities Act, which helped establish the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument (shown here) in Wilberforce, Ohio. Credit: National Park Service

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is under pressure from conservation groups over a bill that could benefit the fossil fuel industry while cutting back on protection and support for parks, historic sites and natural areas.

Congress has been debating the bill — S. 2012, the Energy Policy Modernization Act — this week. Portman, a Republican, supports provisions added to the bill that would weaken the government’s ability to protect natural and cultural heritage areas from development, including drilling and mining, critics say.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the bipartisan and far-reaching energy proposal hits on a variety of issues including efficiency and infrastructure investment.

Meanwhile, Portman also voted to keep taxpayer subsidies for coal and some of the nation’s largest oil and gas producers under the Energy Policy Modernization Act.

Advocates see Portman’s latest positions as part of a trend: He got a score of just 8 percent out of 100 on the 2015 National Environmental Scorecard, which grades lawmakers on their environmental policy positions and is compiled by the League of Conservation Voters.

Portman has also been the subject of digital ad campaigns launched by LCV this month and a recent call-in campaign organized by a coalition of other conservation groups, including the Wilderness Society.

Neither of Portman’s spokespeople responded to a call and two emails seeking comment on the coalition’s concerns.

Restricting presidential protections

Portman recently supported an amendment to weaken presidential authority under the Antiquities Act, which was passed in 1906 and has been used by 16 presidents from both major parties to protect parks and historic sites. President Theodore Roosevelt used the law to protect the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

More recently, President Obama used the Antiquities Act in 2013 to establish the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio.

LCV President Gene Karpinski said it was “beyond disingenuous” for Portman to vote to weaken presidential authority under the law after it had been used in his own state to protect an important Black history site.

The measure to weaken the Antiquities Act is an amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act. That amendment passed, but the bill is still pending in Congress.

“It is our understanding the amendment voted on by the U.S. Senate would merely modify how national monuments or historic areas are designated,” said Shawn Bennett, executive vice president for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “Under the amendment, designations of those types of heritage sites would be subject to an act of Congress, similarly to how national parks are designated, which would allow for robust dialog before any designations are made.”

However, critics argue the change would curtail quick action under executive authority.

“In the past, the Antiquities Act has been used to quickly protect land at risk to mining and extraction,” noted Katelyn Coghlan, a field organizer for the Protect Our Parks campaign, in which the Wilderness Society and the Green Corps are involved.

Funding for parks

Two additional amendments scheduled for discussion would limit potential protections from the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which was established in 1965 to provide money for national, state and local parks. Portman’s position on those proposals is unclear.

Congress let the fund expire last fall. A three-year temporary extension was part of the compromise budget bill, but Congress has yet to reauthorize the fund on a more permanent basis. Portman supported an amendment to the failed Keystone pipeline bill that would have reauthorized it.

Now, though, his fellow party members want to limit where fund money can be used and cut back flexibility on using it to buy new property. 

“When Congress created the LWCF in 1965, the idea was that we should balance the use of one natural resource — oil and gas — with the conservation of another natural resource by using a portion of drilling fees to protect important land and water resources,” explained Josh Knights, head of the Nature Conservancy’s Ohio chapter. “That vision still makes sense, and is even more urgently needed now, as America loses one million acres of working lands, including ranches, farms and forests to development each year.”

Ohio sites that have received money from the fund include the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and a variety of city parks and bike trails.

Fund money has come from a share of oil and gas extraction royalties. But, Knights stressed, “The energy industry does not ‘pay for’ LWCF.”

“What the energy industry is paying for is permission from the federal government to exploit a public asset, i.e., energy resources in the public domain,” Knights explained. “When LWCF was originally set up, Congress decided to utilize some of this revenue stream to conserve another public asset, i.e., important lands and waters.

“In fact, despite an increase in energy production, funding for land and water conservation has been low and unpredictable,” Knights continued. “The program is authorized to receive a small percentage of offshore oil and gas fee revenues — up to $900 million per year — but most of these funds have been diverted elsewhere.

“So yes, we believe it is absolutely appropriate for some of this federal revenue to be invested in our greatest natural assets as Congress has done for the last 50 years,” Knights concluded.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Association said it has not been active on matters involving the Land & Water Conservation Fund. “While funds collected through oil and gas royalties and lease acquisitions may fund the program, the OOGA does not have a position on how the federal government chooses to spend those funds,” Bennett said.

But advocates say the attacks on the LWCF and the Antiquities Act could lead to more fossil fuel development on public lands. Meanwhile, the industry claims the Obama administration has been making efforts to curtail such development.

“If we lose the LWCF and Antiquities Act, we’re much more likely to see oil and gas leases on our public lands,” Coghlan stressed. Fund money has been used in a variety of cases to purchase buffer areas around parks to prevent different types of development from encroaching on natural areas.

“Any measures that repeal or threaten these programs leave public lands and parks extremely vulnerable,” she concluded.

CORRECTION: This article was updated after it ran to clarify that Katelyn Coghlan is a field organizer for the Protect Our Parks campaign, in which the Wilderness Society and Green Corps are involved. Additionally, while the Nature Conservancy supports permanent reauthorization and full funding for the Land & Water Conservation Fund, it is not a member of Protect Our Parks campaign and did not take part in that group’s call-in campaign or other lobbying activities.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.