As Congress and the White House jostle over the prospect of the federal government defaulting on its debts, permitting reforms that could impact NEPA and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act may be swept into a deal.

The Treasury Department is estimating that as early as June, the federal government will exhaust its ability to borrow money to pay for obligations incurred in the past. Congress and the White House need to pass legislation to either raise the debt ceiling or suspend it in order to prevent the government from defaulting, a circumstance that economists warn would be devastating for the U.S. and global economy. But the parties are still far apart on how to achieve that.

President Biden and congressional Democrats want Congress to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase, meaning a bill that raises the ceiling and nothing more. Republicans who control the House, however, are demanding budget cuts and other policy items be included in a debt ceiling bill.

Last week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) unveiled his latest proposal, which would provide for two options for lifting the debt limit: increasing the current $31.4 trillion debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion or suspending it through March 31, 2024, and specifying the limit should be reinstated at whichever threshold is reached first.

In exchange, the proposal would cap spending in the next fiscal year on most non-defense federal programs at levels $131 billion below the amounts provided this year. The proposal also would repeal parts of the Inflation Reduction Act that Democrats passed in 2022, including repeal IRS enforcement funding and a number of clean energy tax credits.

The plan also would include much of the House Republican energy bill, the Lower Energy Costs Act, which the House passed last month. That bill would codify into law reforms made to NEPA by the Trump administration in 2020, which were subsequently rescinded by President Biden when he assumed office; and would provide that companies would not be required to obtain a federal drilling permit for oil and gas exploration, or for geothermal and production activities, on non-federal land where the U.S. owns less than 50% of the subsurface mineral estate and there is a state permit. In other words, such actions would not be subject to 106.

Recognizing the potential harm that the bill would do to the nation’s preservation laws, ACRA joined with its allies in the preservation community in March expressing its opposition to the bill.

Although House Republicans plan to bring their debt ceiling plan to the floor for a vote this week, Senate Democrats have said they will not bring it up, leaving the two sides at a stalemate. However, some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees preservation laws, has indicated support for some reforms to permitting laws.

The stalemate presents challenges to the CRM industry no matter what happens with the House Republican proposal. Its passage could undermine preservation policies like Section 106. But failure of Congress to raise the debt ceiling could damage the still-fragile economy with a first-ever United States debt default. ACRA continues to press both sides to avoid undermining the economy while recognizing the enormous value that preservation laws provide to communities.

ACRA Needs Your Input

The National Park Service (NPS) has proposed updates to the National Register of Historic Places’ “National Register Bulletin 38: Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties” and is seeking public comments on its revisions. First issued in 1990, the TCP Bulletin provides guidance on nominating buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts believed to have traditional cultural significance for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The Bulletin was last updated in the 1990s, although there was an effort to revise it that was stalled in 2017. NPS is now relaunching that effort, having further refined the 2017 draft last October (you can read the revised draft here.)

ACRA’s Government Relations Committee is reviewing the revised Bulletin draft to determine what if any comments it should provide to NPS. As such, the Committee is seeking feedback from ACRA members to inform its comments.

Please send any feedback on the draft revised TCP Bulletin to Executive Director Amanda Stratton no later than April 26.

If you wish to comment to NPS directly on the revised Bulletin, the deadline for submissions is April 30. You can comment here.

ACRA Comments BOEM for Proposed Archaeological Rules

ACRA has submitted comments to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) commending their proposed rule requiring archaeological reports to be submitted with any oil and gas exploration or development plan that lessees and operators submit for activities proposed on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Currently, an archaeological report is required only if the plan covers an area that a BOEM Regional Director has reason to believe may contain an archaeological resource. The proposed rule would increase the likelihood that archaeological resources are located and identified before they are inadvertently damaged by an OCS operator, thereby assuring compliance with Section 106.

In its letter, ACRA noted that “the predictive model regarding the potential for submerged archaeological resources within the coastal waters of the United States . . . has proven problematic . . . as resources such as shipwrecks have been identified in low probability areas. Additionally, the predictive model approach does not provide detailed, site-specific survey or review for the potential of a lease area to contain ancient submerged landform features (ASLFs).”

ACRA’s comments, while supporting the intent of the rule, encourage BOEM to consider additional clarification of certain technical matters in order to avoid guidance issues in the future.