From coast to coast, seas shape economy — and political debate

By Emily Yehle | 04/26/2016 07:03 AM EDT

In 2014, Louisiana Republican Garret Graves achieved the unusual: He won a seat in Congress with the backing of both staunch conservatives and some environmentalists. Welcome to coastal politics, where on-the-ground realities can clash with party ideology. Of the House’s 435 lawmakers, 93 represent districts on the coast, and in each, voters have their own unique views on coastal issues, from offshore oil drilling to climate change.

In 2014, Louisiana Republican Garret Graves achieved the unusual: He won a seat in Congress with the backing of both staunch conservatives and some environmentalists.

Graves, who spent five years as coastal adviser to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), does not deny climate change. Under his direction, Louisiana adopted a coastal plan that recognizes climate’s role in the state’s disappearing coastline.

But asked about climate change as a freshman lawmaker, Graves chooses his words carefully.


"Look, I think — and I want to make sure I say this right because obviously it’s a loaded question — I think to deny that things are changing is unsustainable," he said in a recent interview, pointing to the evidence of sea-level rise on Louisiana’s shores. "But the real loaded question is the role of anthropogenic causes versus biogenic."

Welcome to coastal politics, where on-the-ground realities can clash with party ideology. Of the House’s 435 lawmakers, 93 represent districts on the coast, and in each, voters have their own unique views on coastal issues, from offshore oil drilling to climate change.

The economic importance of the coastline extends well beyond those on the front lines.

The "ocean economy," defined as sectors such as fishing, ports and offshore oil, made up 2.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2013, according to the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP). That’s more than farms, food products, or oil and gas extraction.

That money, and influence, breaks down differently on each coast, and in each state and district. In Texas, offshore oil and gas contribute $129 billion to the state. Louisiana sees far less at $15 billion, but that still makes up most of the state’s "ocean GDP." Two states over, Florida sees more money from tourism and recreation. And around the bend in Virginia, ship building, transportation and tourism all contribute to the economy.

Which is all to say: Coasts are important. And in Congress, that can translate to deal-making as sea levels rise, oceans acidify and coastlines evolve.

"When you take an ocean issue out of the ideological space, when you’re able to talk about it in its own terms, there’s a lot of interest and there’s a lot of pragmatism because it’s about solving an issue in your district," said Jeff Watters, the director of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy who was once Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell’s legislative assistant for ocean issues. "They get really pragmatic, really fast."

Drill, baby, drill — but not here

Last year, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) offered an amendment on the floor of the House with the support of almost half the Florida delegation — including six Republicans.

The amendment, which was offered on a spending bill, was on a notably divisive topic: seismic testing. Specifically, the group of Florida lawmakers wanted to prevent the use of airguns off Florida’s coast.

"As you can see from the list of co-sponsors, offshore drilling is not a partisan issue in our state but an economic issue," Murphy said. "Florida is a unique place that depends on healthy beaches, clean waters and a safeguarded environment. The seismic testing that the administration has proposed puts all of these things at risk."

Murphy was referring to plans for seismic testing along the East Coast, a precursor to the now-defunct plan to open up drilling in along the Atlantic Coast. Such seismic tests use loud airguns to find untapped mineral deposits, and scientists say they can change the behavior and potentially harm whales and other marine life.

The amendment failed. But the issue did not go away: A grass-roots campaign, helmed by Oceana, convinced more than 100 East Coast municipalities to oppose seismic testing or offshore drilling. Some lawmakers in those areas, including Republicans, followed suit.

Last month, the Obama administration reversed course and announced it would not open up the Atlantic Ocean to drilling (Greenwire, March 15).

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford is among the Republicans who has come out against seismic testing, helping pen a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that called it an "enormously disruptive activity in the ocean."

Sanford’s environmental record is mixed. Endorsed by the Sierra Club for his second term as South Carolina governor, he garnered a 6 percent score on the League of Conservation Voters’ 2015 scorecard. He also has aligned with tea party Republicans, joining the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

But in a recent interview, he said his district "has an overwhelming environmental ethos."

"There are others in the delegation and elsewhere who have a very different view — drill, baby, drill and energy independence and all those. To me, it’s an oxymoron given the omnibus," Sanford said, referring to the fact that the oil export ban was lifted in last year’s omnibus tax deal. "The idea of drilling in waters in South Carolina or off South Carolina so you can then have that capacity, refine in the Gulf and then sent to France or Germany to me isn’t exactly about energy independence."

Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at LCV, theorized that residents along the Mid-Atlantic saw drilling as posing a risk to their economic livelihood. In South Carolina, for example, the coastal economy is largely based on tourism and recreation.

"I think offshore drilling was a threat to jobs in the Atlantic, and so people weren’t willing to put up with those risks," he said.

Climate change bubbles up

A similar dynamic was on display earlier this year when Florida Reps. Ted Deutch (D) and Carlos Curbelo (R) formed the first bipartisan House caucus on climate change. The group held its first meeting this week (E&E Daily, April 19).

It’s unclear what the caucus will be able to accomplish within a Congress that still views climate change as a risky topic. But the effort shows the power of the coast — particularly in Florida, where tourism and recreation contributed $17.4 billion to the state in 2013, according to NOEP.

Alex Patton, owner of the Florida-based Ozean Media and a Republican pollster, said the issue of climate change was "bubbling up" in South Florida. But he asserted that it wasn’t yet a big campaign issue for Republicans.

As an example, he pointed to northern Florida’s conservative 4th District, where Rep. Ander Crenshaw’s retirement sets up a competitive Republican primary to replace him (Greenwire, April 13).

Coastal issues will be "critical," Patton said — and they don’t include sea-level rise or climate change. The district is home to a major naval base and Jacksonville Port, significant contributors to the economy. Crenshaw regularly secured funds for these facilities as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"What I observe in polling is the issue is not salient yet with Republicans," Patton said. "It’s just not an issue for them. Much more salient is going to be the naval base in Jacksonville. Are they going to get the experience they deserve?"

But Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said the state’s Republicans are still "more pro-environmental than Republicans in a lot of other places."

Take the Everglades, where canals, highways, runoff and development have fractured and polluted a water system crucial to the state. Climate change further threatened the low-lying area; President Obama traveled to Everglades National Park last year to give his Earth Day speech on climate change.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who environmentalists dislike, recently signed a bill setting aside $250 million each year for restoration. In Congress, even Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — a vocal denier of global warming — now supports a $1.9 billion project to allow more water flow in the swamp.

Why? Because Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) convinced him of the on-the-ground realities.

"Marco showed me this was different. And I wouldn’t have gotten into it if Marco hadn’t talked to me," Inhofe recently told The Miami Herald. "When Marco said 1 out of 3 Floridians are affected, I thought that wasn’t right."

‘This is our outdoors’

In Florida, lawmakers also have long opposed drilling off the state’s shores, where beaches are a huge draw for the tourists who pump billions of dollars into the economy each year.

Republicans in the state tend to support offshore drilling only "as long as they can’t see a rig," Patton said.

That is not the case in other Gulf states.

Louisiana, which sees $15 billion from the oil and gas industry, breeds a unique environmental view: lawmakers who support offshore drilling but also emphasize their constituents’ connection to the environment.

Graves asserted that the Gulf can be both the country’s top offshore energy producer and have "one of the most productive ecosystems in North America."

As an example, he pointed to the connection between fishing and oil rigs. Most fishermen — recreational and commercial — catch red snapper by anchoring near oil rigs, where the reef fish congregate.

"This is our outdoors. This is what you do. It’s not snow-capped mountains. It’s not whitewater rapids," Graves said. "This is what we do growing up. We all go fishing. We all go hunting."

Coastal restoration is broadly supported in Louisiana, where its wetlands are disappearing thanks not only to the sinking of the land and the rising of the sea, but also to damage from oil and gas industry canals and man-made levees.

"There are actual people who live very close to the coast and have had to move because of the nature of the intrusion and loss of land," said a longtime political consultant, who asked to remain anonymous after recently retiring from the business. "People, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, they take the position that the coast has to be in some way restored."

Earlier this month, a federal judge signed off on the $20 billion settlement between the Obama administration and BP PLC for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The money will begin to be paid out next year, divided among states and the federal government as outlined in the RESTORE Act.

With the planning process underway, the issue has taken a back seat on Capitol Hill. Instead, Graves and other Gulf state lawmakers have focused much congressional attention on a single fish: the red snapper.

The fish is coveted by everyone, from commercial fishermen to charter boats to individual anglers. Once depleted, the red snapper population has begun to recover — but recreational fishermen still have little more than a week each year to harvest them.

The reasons are complicated and the issue is controversial, pitting commercial fishermen and environmentalists against recreational fishing groups.

Graves has made the issue his raison d’être, repeatedly pushing a bill that has all the hallmarks of the Republican platform: It criticizes federal science, hands over management of red snapper to states and celebrates the freedom of individual anglers.

But the bill has struggled to get out of the House. Gulf lawmakers love to talks about red snapper — and hold hearings on it — but they also each have a different mix of constituents.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R), who represents Alabama’s coastal 1st District, summed up why he couldn’t support it at a hearing last year where Graves was trying to attach it to another bill.

"I want a solution as badly or more badly than anybody in this room," he said. "This amendment won’t get us there because it pits one part of the fishery against another, which guarantees we won’t get it to the floor for a vote."

Here today, cod tomorrow

More than 1,500 miles away, along the Northeast coast, Democrats also align themselves with the fishing industry.

Commercial fishing as a family business is a long-standing tradition in many coastal Northeast districts. But as fish stocks decline — in particular, Gulf of Maine cod — fishermen face more federal restrictions.

Earlier this year, Republicans and Democrats from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island wrote to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asking that the agency decrease the number of independent watchdogs who make sure fishermen follow federal rules.

Until this year, NOAA paid for the at-sea monitors, which collectively cost millions of dollars each year. But the agency says it no longer can afford the program, creating panic among fishermen who are struggling under a near-moratorium on cod.

The issue has brought together Republicans and Democrats from the region whose constituents depend on the industry.

Last month, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) laid out the problem to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

"There is still this feeling out on the line, where people actually have the fishing boats and are doing the work, that they’re not being heard," she said.

In the House, Massachusetts Democrats Bill Keating, Stephen Lynch and Seth Moulton successfully attached an amendment to a Republican bill that would allow money from NOAA’s asset forfeiture fund to be used for at-sea monitors, relieving fishermen.

"Depleted stocks and the policies put in place to rebuild those stocks have exacted a heavy toll," Lynch said on the House floor at the time. "And we have all heard the stories of fishing families struggling to make ends meet and keep their generations-long family businesses alive."

But the bill, H.R. 1335, is a controversial reauthorization of the nation’s top fisheries law. It was widely panned by Democrats and environmentalists because it would eliminate a 10-year limit on rebuilding fish stocks, remove catch limit requirements for some species and allow economic hardship exemptions to some conservation measures.

Keating, Lynch and Moulton were among five Democrats who broke ranks and voted for it.

Fishing issues can be "very regionally specific," said Watters of the Ocean Conservancy. In the Northeast, it’s family-run fishermen who are steeped in tradition but struggling with declining stocks. But in the West Coast and Pacific, fisheries were established later, with industry often policing itself.

"It’s a matter of reflecting the industry. It’s very easy for members on the West Coast to have that long-term conservation-minded view. It all aligns, and that’s beautiful and wonderful," Watters said. But elsewhere, like in the Northeast, "it’s much more challenging" for lawmakers.

But sometimes, the demands of the fishing industry and environmentalists align, prompting strong bipartisanship rarely seen in Congress.

Last year, Congress quietly passed H.R. 774, a bill that implements an international treaty requiring countries to keep closer tabs on foreign vessels through inspections and enforcement.

Introduced by Guam Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D) — and supported by the Obama administration — the bill also had strong Republican support.

All 20 of the Republican co-sponsors on the bill were from coastal states.

Chicken or egg?

On the other side of the country, California is in a political reality all its own.

Offshore oil and gas contribute almost $5 billion a year to the state, but the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara has soured residents on any new rigs. Tourism and recreation are the largest coastal industry, worth $18.4 billion to the state in 2013, according to NOEP.

The West Coast is also already feeling the effects of ocean acidification, with declines in oyster production and predictions that economically important fish are at risk. Unusually warm waters recently gave California, as well as Oregon and Washington, a sneak peak at the toxic algal blooms that could become more frequent as the climate changes.

Of 19 coastal districts in the Golden State, all but two are represented by Democrats.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), whose district encompasses the state’s coast north of San Francisco, opined that the importance of tourism and residents’ connection to the environment translates to Democratic representation.

"California has become almost a solid blue line, from the Mexico border to the Oregon border, so coastal politics have made our coast a Democratic stronghold," said Huffman, a former senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I think they’re more connected to the environment, and I think that the few coastal Republicans that we have have to at least be able to say something about protecting the ocean, protecting the coast, the marine economy."

But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R), whose coastal district is directly south of Los Angeles, has long supported offshore oil drilling, once declaring that the oil rigs off Long Beach had "beautiful facades." Despite some worries early on that his stance made him politically vulnerable, he has been in office since 1989.

Jon Fleischman, a California-based Republican political consultant and blogger, said that while people on the coast tend to be more environmentally conscious, "there’s no formula for it."

In his view, the main influence is wealth. Those on the coast enjoy "an environmental quality of life not found anywhere else," and they’re willing to pay for it. Other parts of California can be economically depressed.

"The House seats along the coast are home for the givers," Fleischman said, later adding: "If you’re talking about true coastal seats, the No. 1 thing I think is the affluence of the district."

Reporter Dylan Brown contributed.