The National Ocean Council today released a series of draft action plans aimed at addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing U.S. oceans and coasts and the Great Lakes.
Taken together, the nine action plans will help create a framework around which the White House's new National Ocean Policy will be built. The policy, which President Obama set in motion with an executive order last year, is aimed at improving coordination and planning for a wide range of issues -- from preparing for climate change impacts on coastal communities to regulating offshore wind farms and oil drilling.
In a presidential proclamation today celebrating June as National Oceans Month, Obama praised the policy as a way to more effectively use federal resources.
"While we embrace our oceans as crucial catalysts for trade, bountiful sources of food and frontiers for renewable energy, we must also recommit to ensuring their safety and sustainability and to being vigilant guardians of our coastal communities," Obama said.
The release of the strategic plans today comes ahead of a 12-city listening tour that experts from the National Ocean Council will conduct next week through July 1. The council, made up of representatives of 27 agencies with oversight roles in the oceans and Great Lakes, is looking for public feedback before finalizing those plans sometime early next year. The first listening session will take place on June 9 in Arlington, Va.
"I think the people who are interested and care about the oceans and depend on the oceans have a lot to tell us, and we have a lot to learn from them, so I think these listening sessions will be very helpful," said Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley, who also serves as a co-chair of the National Ocean Council.
"We've done our best to try to identify issues, but there are things that really do affect communities -- whether it's how we manage fisheries, how we manage energy production, even things related to shipping and air pollution. So that's what we're trying to get from these sessions," Sutley said.
The action plans include several efforts that have garnered broad-based support, such as better educating the public about oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes. But one of the plans involves the somewhat controversial practice called coastal and marine spatial planning, a process that would take some principles of zoning to the sea.
Ocean experts and the Obama administration have been pushing for a marine planning effort to address growing demand to use the ocean for activities that can conflict, such as drilling, shipping, fishing, aquaculture, renewable energy development and recreation.
The draft action plan that was released today calls for a regional approach to the marine planning effort to allow the unique geographic, economic and social aspects of different regions of the country to guide the development of those plans. But the plan also acknowledges that preparing spatial plans "may create a level of anxiety" among those who rely on the oceans' resources and that frequent engagement among the public, stakeholders and the government will be essential to making the effort a success.
"It's a concept that evokes strong emotions on both sides of the argument," said Michael Conathan, who serves as director of ocean policy for the Center for American Progress. "It's something that is somewhat in need of further definition because it means different things to different people."
For example, the fishing industry has expressed concerns that the process could force fishermen out of areas they have long considered open. But some offshore wind energy developers view the process as an opportunity to overcome some of the hurdles and red tape that come with developing their projects.
"When you have different people vying for the use of ocean space, you have to find a way to balance the needs of those potentially conflicting user groups," Conathan said.
But Conathan suggested that spatial planning works best when it is used as more of a philosophy, applied on an "as needed" basis.
"When you are dealing with an area larger than the landmass of the country, you can't plan for every inch," he said.
Another concern that some ocean industry groups have raised about the National Ocean Policy effort is the fear that it might add another layer of red tape for those industries that already deal with a vast amount of federal regulation.
"We believe that a key challenge for any ocean policy is to implement policy that fully recognizes and works with the many existing laws and regulations that govern activities in the marine environment," said Rick Ranger, senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.
Ranger said that better coordination among the many agencies that share jurisdiction over ocean activities is certainly a desirable goal.
"But we don't think there's either the need or legal authority for a program that would reinvent the wheel in particular for offshore oil and gas activities," he said. The National Ocean Policy "should work within the existing framework and not try to superimpose new and more restrictive policies on top of it."
But Sutley said that the status quo has some real limitations.
"We're not looking to develop a whole separate regulatory process," she said. "We believe we can do this under current authorities and current regulations."
What the action plans are trying to accomplish is "getting folks together to talk about issues before they get too far to try to reduce potential conflict," Sutley said.