House Republicans' planned, but not yet introduced, surface transportation/oil and gas drilling measure won't be ready this year.
Two weeks ago, when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other leading GOP lawmakers went before the cameras to announce their plan, which Boehner said would increase domestic oil and gas production "and use those [energy] revenues to repair and improve America's roads and bridges."
He added, "I'm hopeful that the House will be able to act before the end of the year on this bill."
But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a Nov. 30 speech at the University of Virginia that the bill won't move until early 2012.
Construction industry and state DOT officials are no strangers to waiting for a long-term highway-transit authorization bill. The last such multiyear measure expired Sept. 30, 2009, and the programs have been running since then, through eight stopgap measures.
It's far from a shock that the House Republican measure 's timetable has been stretched out. For one thing, the deadline for the highway-transit bill isn't until March 31, the date when the current extension expires.
For another, this month's legislative days are few and Congress is focused now on other items that do expire on Dec. 31, particularly the payroll tax cut.
Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the transportation committee, said Dec. 1, "I'm disappointed, not surprised" that the GOP transportation-energy package won't be out until next year.
As the waiting goes on, there are major unanswered questions about the Boehner-Mica bill. They include: How big will it be? Mica told reporters a couple of weeks ago he would like the bill to span at least five years, but would prefer six. And he has said its funding would be current levels. Mica had put that number at about $285 billion.
The second big question is: How will it be paid for?
The Highway Trust Fund has been the prime financing source for highways and transit for more than 50 years. The fund's main component--its highway account--is projected to start running a deficit around the fall of 2012, and its predicted revenue falls well short of $285 billion over five or six years.
Rahall says the GOP's concept--increased energy exploration--won't bring in nearly enough royalty revenue to close the gap between the trust fund's capabilities and a $285-billion program.
Back in 2008, when Rahall chaired the Natural Resources Committee, he had asked the Congressional Budget Office to estimate how much revenue expanded offshore oil and gas drilling would bring in. The result: CBO estimated offshore energy receipts would rise by about $2 billion over 10 year.
Rahall told reporters Dec.1, "It's just a drop in the bucket and it's not available until 10 years from now"--meaning that royalties won't come in until new wells are drilled, prove out, and start producing.
Energy production on federally owned lands from offshore sites produced $11.2 billion in royalties and other fees in fiscal 2011, the Interior Dept. says.
But only $6 billion of that went to the Treasury. The rest was otherwise spoken for, including about $2 billion to 37 states that contain federal energy-producing land or are near offshore sites.
Another $2.4 billion went to Western U.S. water programs or to acquire land for recreation uses or to protect natural areas.