With demands on US ocean resources control growing quickly, the Obama administration today outlined a new comprehensive ocean management plan [PDF] to guide federal agencies in restoring and protecting a badly stressed US coastal and ocean environment.
Today's policy shift proposed by the president's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force holds enormous potential for sweeping changes in how the nation's oceans are managed, including energy development, experts say.
At its core, the plan would set up a new National Ocean Council to guide a holistic "ecosystem-based" approach intended to elevate and unify what has long been a piecemeal approach by US agencies toward ocean policy and development -- from oil and gas exploration to fisheries management to ship transportation to recreation.
The proposal would include "a more balanced, productive, and sustainable approach to using managing and conserving ocean resources," Nancy Sutley, chairman of the president's Council on Environmental Quality told reporters in a teleconference unveiling the plan. It would also set up "a comprehensive national approach to uphold our stewardship responsibilities and ensure accountability for our actions."
Dr. Sutley, who also chaired the interagency task force, appeared alongside representatives from the Department of Interior, the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the proposal would apply to 24 agencies.
"This will be the first time we have ever had this kind of action for healthy oceans from any president in US history," Sarah Chasis, director of the ocean initiative at Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in her blog. She called it the "most progressive, comprehensive national action for our oceans that we have ever seen."
The changes could affect new offshore wind-energy proposals as well as oil and natural gas exploration. "We haven't fully looked at all aspects of the report,” says Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association. “The one concern we have is we don't want to stop the momentum of offshore wind projects we're already seeing. So while we're certainly not opposed to marine spatial planning, we would like to see projects already in the pipeline move ahead and start getting some offshore projects going in the US.”
One senior official of the American Petroleum Institute said he had not yet seen the proposal and could not comment on it.
The new push comes at a time when major decisions will be needed about whether and how to explore or develop oil and gas in now-thawing areas of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Policy changes could also affect deep-water regions in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the siting of wave power and renewable offshore wind turbines off the East Coast.
At the same time, desalination plants, offshore aquaculture, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals are clamoring for space along coastal areas where existing requirements by commercial shipping and commercial fishing are already in place.
All of that – set against a backdrop of existing and continuing damage to fisheries, coral, coastal wetlands, beaches, and deteriorating water quality – has America's oceans "in crisis," in the words of a landmark Pew Oceans Commission report issued in 2003. More than 20,000 acres of wetlands and other sensitive habitat disappear annually, while nutrient runoff creates "dead zones" and harmful algal blooms. Some 30 percent of US fish populations are overfished or fished unsustainably, the report found.
Among the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force's national objectives were:
1. Ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle for comprehensive management of the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes.
2. Coastal and marine spatial planning to resolve emerging conflicts to ensure that shipping lanes and wind, wave, and oil and gas energy development do not harm fisheries and water quality.
3. Improved coordination of policy development among federal state, tribal, local, and regional managers of ocean, coasts, and the Great Lakes.
4. Focus on resiliency and adaptation to climate change and ocean acidification.
5. Pay special attention to policies needed to deal with changing arctic conditions.
Experts said that the new, unified policy was timely, after decades of hit-or-miss development policies.
"We have been managing bits and pieces of the ocean for a long time, but while some good has been done on pollution and resource management, it hasn't been sufficient." says Andrew Rosenberg, professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire and an adviser to the president's ocean task force."This policy shift comes at a critical time for our oceans for so many reasons."
The new proposal won't be finalized until next year, after a 30-day comment period that begins now. Still, environmentalists were quick to hail the plan as a critical and timely step to begin healing disintegrating environmental conditions in US coastal waters and in the US exclusive economic zone that extends 200 miles beyond its territorial waters.
In June, President Obama set up the commission to develop: “a national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhances the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies.”
It must also, he wrote, “preserve our maritime heritage, provides for adaptive management to enhance our understanding of and capacity to respond to climate change, and is coordinated with our national security and foreign policy interests.”
"It's the first time the federal government has put out a decent paper that proposes what a national policy and attitude toward our oceans should be," says Christopher Mann, senior officer Pew Environment Group, the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trust.
In one of the more telling passages buried down in its interim report, the task force called for decisions guided by "best available science" as well as a "precautionary approach" that reflects the Rio Declaration of 1992, which states: "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environment degradation."
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