In what one ocean activist said he hoped wasn't a harbinger of the future of the initiative, the first listening session on action plans to implement the National Ocean Policy took place last night at Arlington National Cemetery.
The challenge in keeping the new policy from becoming an honorable but lifeless measure was obvious at last night's gathering of about 80 government officials, industry representatives and concerned citizens in an auditorium inside the Women in Military Service Memorial: Coordinating the needs and addressing the concerns of the vast number of groups that use the nation's oceans, coasts and Great Lakes is a herculean task.
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 improving marine educational efforts to preparing for climate change impacts on coastal communities and better regulating offshore wind farms and oil drilling.
Last week, the National Ocean Council (NOC), which is made up of representatives of 27 agencies with oversight over the oceans and Great Lakes, released nine draft action plans that are intended to create the framework around which the National Ocean Policy will be built (E&ENews PM, June 2). It was those nine plans that the council was looking to get feedback on last night.
Some of those action plans are more controversial than others. Take, for example, the idea of 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.
"This is really a good idea, but it can go sour very quickly," said Boyce Thorne-Miller, who works for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a group that represents small-scale fishermen in New England.
The draft action plans call for the establishment of nine planning bodies around the country to develop regional spatial planning outlines that take into account the local needs of different parts of the oceans and Great Lakes.
Ideally, Thorne-Miller said, those planning boards should be able to take into account all the interests of different groups and weigh them equally.
But "imagine the pressures, the political and economic pressures, that will be" put on them, she said.
She wondered if the voices of small-scale fishermen, like those she represents, will be drowned out by the power of some large industry or energy developer.
Bud Darr, the director of environmental and health programs for the Cruise Lines International Association, says his group is not as skeptical as some others when it comes to marine spatial planning and other aspects of the National Ocean Policy.
"If implemented properly, this can be of benefit to all the stakeholders," Darr said. "We're hoping the government remains sensitive to the issues they say they are, particularly the economic issues. ... It really comes down to the level of interaction with the regulated community."
Darr said that his industry is watching to see how efforts like marine spatial planning are weighed against ocean vessels' freedom of navigation. And there are certainly questions about whether the sighting of offshore renewable energy projects will create conflict with how ships operate. But he also said a National Ocean Policy has several potential benefits to the cruise industry.
For example, several different states have different regulations when it comes to the discharge of ballast water from oceangoing vessels. Darr hopes the National Ocean Policy will help to harmonize those various regulatory regimes and create more uniform requirements.
But it is also unclear just how long Darr and those who might benefit from the initiative will have to wait until they can reap the rewards of a fully implemented National Ocean Policy.
The draft strategic plans released last week are open for public comment until NOC completes a 12-city listening tour early next month. They will then go back to the council for further development, with the hope of finalizing them by early 2012.
Some environmental leaders have so far been less than impressed with the amount of real action they see in the draft action plans.
For example, the council's plan to adopt an ecosystem-based management (EBM) outline for the comprehensive management of the ocean calls for a working group to "propose" a framework for EBM, ensure that EBM approaches are integrated into agency decisionmaking processes, and "identify strategies" to increase understanding of EBM.
"In their current form, the strategic action plans kick the can down the road too much," said Chris Mann, who works on ocean issues for the Pew Environment Group. "Everyone understands the need for ongoing planning and analysis, but there is circularity in plans that call for more planning, and strategies that call for developing strategies. For the National Ocean Policy to be effective, it needs to take action along our coasts and in our waters to address the many well-known and well-understood problems, and not get bogged down in process."
NOC co-Chairwoman Nancy Sutley, who also serves as chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said last night that when dealing with so many diverse and complicated issues, the council wants to take the time required to get it right the first time.
"At the end of the day, I think we're going to have to strike the balance of those things we can do immediately and those things that we need to get the agencies ready to do and take care of," Sutley said. "We're starting a public process to get input, and at the end of that, we'll see whether we got the balance right."
William Nuckols, an ocean policy expert who runs his own consulting firm in Washington, D.C., also believes the effort to bring real change through the National Ocean Policy is not moving fast enough.
Nuckols offered several suggestions to the various NOC officials who were on hand last night to take feedback from the public on the draft action plans. But one of Nuckols' suggestions had no place in any of those nine plans.
Nuckols said that most of what the administration is hoping to achieve through NOC and the National Ocean Policy might be more effectively accomplished if Obama created a White House-level ocean czar.
"Nobody has command-and-control authority," Nuckols said. When it comes to NOC, "everyone is a part-timer on this. Nobody has been appointed where they've said, 'If you have a conflict, this is the person to go to resolve it.'"
The idea of creating an oceans czar pre-dates the Obama administration, but Jeff Luster, an ocean policy adviser on the NOC staff, declined to say last night whether the idea was included in the discussions that led to the draft action plans.
"All I can say is that the final recommendations reflect the collective consensus and determination of 27 federal agencies, departments and offices that were represented on the NOC as to what would be the most appropriate recommended framework for a governance structure," Luster said.