October 2015: The Significance of Gasoline Taxes to Fisheries


AFS President Ron Essig

Many fisheries students and professionals in the United States don’t realize the significance of gasoline to fisheries conservation and management. They may be aware that the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration (SFR) Act has provided excise taxes on recreational fishing equipment for state fisheries conservation and management work since its passage in 1950. They also may be aware that the 1984 Wallop-Breaux (WB) amendments to the SFR Act added motorboat fuel taxes as a revenue source. What many don’t realize is that these revenues are collected at the pump where we buy gasoline for our automobiles as part of the federal tax that has been set at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.

The Society, through former Executive Director Carl Sullivan and prominent members like Gil Radonski—who was president of the Sport Fishing Institute, was involved in the legislative battle for the WB amendments. The end product of their efforts can truly be considered a legacy for conservation and management of fisheries in the United States. Revenues tripled from the previous year and to this day support many of the state programs and university research that are key to fisheries education and the profession.

The WB amendments mandate that a portion of the federal gasoline tax that is attributable to motorboat usage be added to the Sport Fishing and Boating Trust Fund (Trust Fund). The amount is based on a calculation of the number of state-registered boats separated into three length classes multiplied by the average annual fuel consumption for each length class from survey data. The resulting total estimated number of gallons of gasoline per year is then multiplied by 18.4 cents per gallon to arrive at the total tax revenues from motorboats. From 2011 to 2014, this has resulted in around 1% of the tax collected, or an average of US$349 million per year. Since this represents about 56% of Trust Fund revenues, it is no surprise that the boating industry was successful in increasing mandatory expenditures for boating access from 10 to 15% of state apportionments. There were also increases in funding for boating safety programs that are run by states and administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, this was a small price to pay since the WB amendments that added gasoline taxes tripled the amount of funding going to state fisheries agencies after implementation in 1987.

All states also have excise taxes and fees on gasoline that, according to the American Petroleum Institute, averaged 30.5 cents per gallon nationally as of July 2015. Many states have modeled legislation after the WB amendments to allocate a portion of these revenues toward fishing and boating purposes. For example, Pennsylvania collects data on fuel consumption from boaters during its boat registration renewal process. These data are applied to its 51 cents per gallon state gasoline tax and fee revenues to be used for boat access area maintenance and development, water trails, aids to navigation, law enforcement, acci- dent investigation, and boating safety education. Revenues from state gasoline taxes attributable to boating are typically used as part of the 25% non-federal match for SFR boating projects.

Another component of the Trust Fund that involves federal gasoline taxes is the coastal wetland conservation program that was added in 1991. Revenues from fuel for small gasoline engine equipment such as lawn mowers, chainsaws, and weed whackers are set aside for coastal wetlands acquisition and restoration. This has totaled about 18% of Trust Fund revenues, or an average of $115 million annually from 2011 to 2014. Seventy percent of these revenues are allocated toward coastal wetland work in Louisiana; 15% go toward the North American Wetland Conservation Act fund; and 15% are for competitive grants to state fish and wildlife agencies. Marine and coastal fisheries that are estuarine-dependent clearly receive benefits from these coastal wetlands projects.

Revenues from fuel for small gasoline engine equipment such as lawn mowers, chainsaws, and weed whackers are set aside for coastal wetlands acquisition and restoration.

The fuel tax transfer provisions of the SFR Act need to be reauthorized through time. The legislative vehicle for doing that is the federal highway bill, of which WB is just a tiny portion. As you might expect, reauthorization is a political challenge since there are billions of dollars at stake with these funds mainly going toward highway construction projects. In recent years, our legislators have decided multiple times to kick the can down the road with short-term extensions instead of passing a more comprehensive bill that will last many years. The most recent extension to the highway bill carries it to the end of October 2015.

So if you are a boater or small gasoline engine user in the United States, the next time you buy gasoline at the pump, keep in mind that your purchase plays a part in benefiting fisheries resources. It contributes toward approximately 75% of Trust Fund revenues that come from federal gasoline taxes. Maybe this will take a little of the guilt away from burning fuels to participate in these activities. Less dependency on fossil fuels is a good thing considering the environmental impacts of extraction, processing, and distribution, particularly on aquatic environments. However, less gasoline consumed means less revenue for SFR and coastal wetlands projects under current U.S. law. Life is about trade-offs, and this is just another example. Members click below for the October 2015 Fisheries magazine’s complete issue. Non-members, join here.

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