The Obama administration is working to craft a new overarching national ocean policy that could change how federal agencies address new projects at sea -- from offshore energy development to aquaculture to marine conservation.
Top administration officials last week kicked off what will be a cross-country tour of public listening sessions on the plan, the first public events for a group that has worked in overdrive, but under the radar, throughout the summer to craft the new policy.
Once completed, the group's work could significantly alter marine planning and set the stage for a new system of ocean "zoning" that would allocate marine resources among interests such as fishing, boating, oil and gas development, shipping, renewable energy and wildlife.
The new ocean policy is intended to give a unifying voice to the 20 federal agencies and more than 140 separate laws that address aspects of ocean policy. Two major national oceans commissions recommended the creation of an overaching ocean policy five years ago in reports that found the marine environment is seriously depleted and disrupted by overfishing, development, pollution and climate change.
"It is commonly understood that the lack of a cohesive policy, the lack of mechanisms to ensure the health of the ecosystem, is one of the reasons we're seeing so many problems in the oceans," said Jane Lubchenco, one of the administration's chief advocates for oceans as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a member of the task force.
Lubchenco added: "It is high time we took a careful look and made a statement about what the national oceans policy should be, to bring that all together in a cohesive fashion with clear marching orders, clear intent for our uses of the oceans and our uses on land for things that affect the oceans."
The White House-appointed group plans to release the recommendations for a first-of-its-kind national ocean policy next month and a framework for marine planning by the end of the year.
Its recommendations, which will go to President Obama for approval, are an attempt to address issues such as who should oversee permits for ocean development, conflicts over shipping lanes that run into marine mammal migration routes, wind farms poised to enter recreational areas and water pollution from Midwest farms that kills fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
More challenges may arise in coming years, ocean experts say, as new resources open up in the melting Arctic and businesses look for new renewable energy opportunities at sea.
Ocean advocates are hopeful that Obama will use the recommendations to craft an executive order that will force agencies to work together on ocean conservation, consider the effects of their projects on marine ecosystems and address some of the more complicated problems at sea.
"It is very hard, absent a directive from above, for the agencies to put aside their individual mandates and aspirations and work together toward something bigger," said Chris Mann of the Pew Environment Group, who contributed to the group's ocean commission report.
Mann added: "If it is done by executive order, that would be a crucial element to show the White House, their boss, thinks the ocean ought to be managed more holistically, and telling them to do so in a way they have never done before."
An ocean administration?
President Obama created the task force with little fanfare in June, when he issued a memorandum one Friday afternoon at the end of "Oceans Week" (E&ENews PM, June 12).
The memo did not make a big splash outside of government, but it incited a new "flurry of activity" in the agencies, according to Lubchenco. Since the directive went out, the two dozen agency and White House officials who make up the task force have met biweekly to try to hammer out a plan. Working groups and staff-level meetings have occurred multiple times a week.
"It has been very intense," said Lubchenco.
Marine advocates say the quiet effort shows a commitment from the Obama administration to establish its own marine legacy. They say the task force's work could open the door for some of the most significant federal efforts at ocean conservation and become a major contribution to the administration's environmental portfolio.
"The Bush administration did a good job in protecting large areas in the South Pacific and Hawaii, but in terms of ocean management, we have not seen an emphasis like this before," said Laura Burton Capps of the Ocean Conservancy. "And with the challenge before us, it's the right one. With all this activity right off the shores, we need to be smart about how we plan for our shared future."
For years, ocean experts have said the U.S. government needs a national policy to oversee oceans and the Great Lakes. The Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy both called for a national policy as a part of the hefty set of recommendations they made five years ago, but neither Congress nor the Bush administration was able to put one in place.
Marine advocates knew they had a sympathetic ear in Lubchenco. A marine biologist, Lubchenco contributed to the Pew Oceans Commission's effort and in 1998, at the first-ever national oceans conference, reported to President Clinton on the need for more comprehensive ocean management. The question was whether Lubchenco could prod the sprawling federal bureaucracy to take action on the efforts she had been pushing for years.
The NOAA chief says she found an ally in President Obama, who has developed his own affinity for the ocean living in Hawaii and near the Great Lakes and "has a nice alignment" with what she thinks is important.
"It is very exciting that this administration is taking this seriously, with leadership in the White House -- at the presidential level and Nancy Sutley at CEQ and supported by the Office of Management and Budget -- it is very exciting that these issues are moving ahead," Lubchenco said. "It is very timely and more important to the American people than they often appreciate."
White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley, who is the leader of the task force, says the effort is a top priority for the administration.
"The ocean is important for the U.S. from many different perspectives, important for environmental resources and from a security and commerce perspective, but it sometimes doesn't get the level of attention that it deserves," Sutley said in an interview this month. "It's just time for us to think about the ocean in a more coordinated fashion and framework."
The public listening session last Friday in Anchorage, Alaska, was the first stop in a nationwide tour of hearings planned over the next two months for San Francisco, New Orleans, Rhode Island, Ohio and possibly Hawaii.
Prior to the listening session, Sutley, Lubchenco and other task force members spent last week in Alaska getting a firsthand look at some of these challenges of marine management in the face of climate change. They visited a village forced to relocate due to climate change, Arctic science centers, climate observatories and an oil production facility.
A policy that 'should not be underestimated'
Under Obama's order, the task force must develop by next month a set of recommendations for a national ocean policy that centers on protection of oceans and the Great Lakes and sustainability of their economies. Then the group has another three months to lay the groundwork for a new marine planning system.
Exactly what the two recommendations will look like and how they will be used remains to be seen. It will be up to Obama to decide what to do with the task force's recommendations.
The new policy will likely provide "general guidance" to federal agencies on the national priorities for the ocean, according to Lubchenco. Further regulations or laws may be needed to translate the guidance into action, she said.
"But its importance shouldn't be underestimated," Lubchenco said. "There are currently no guidelines, there is no cohesive statement about the nation's intent for the use of the waters and ecosystems under its jurisdiction."
The next phase, the marine spatial planning framework, will set parameters for how the federal government could approach ocean development and conservation at the ecosystem level, rather than just project by project in different isolated agencies.
The marine plan could eventually lead to a system of zoning the ocean for different uses, mapping out areas for different activities, such as energy development, recreation or fishing. But Lubchenco said the task force is unlikely to come up with something that specific by the end of the year. Rather, she said the task force will likely assemble a "road map" for how to move ahead with more specific plans.
"It's not clear how detailed we will be able to get," she said. "I think, in the time we have available, we will be making recommendations about a fairly generic approach framing what [marine spatial planning] is, what it looks like, who might be responsible and what it would include."