Pew Oceans Commission's Panetta calls for more urgency with ocean reform bills

With several proposals for ocean reform on the table, advocates are growing frustrated with the slow response from Congress and the Bush administration to push this legislation through. During today's OnPoint, Leon Panetta, chairman of the Pew Oceans Commission and co-chairman of the Joint Ocean Commission, outlines some of the major points made in the Joint Ocean Commission report that is being released today. Panetta also stresses the need for more cooperation between federal, state and local governments to address ocean issues.


Colin Sullivan: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Joining us today is Mr. Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff, former member of Congress and chairman of the Pew Oceans Commission and also co-chairman of the Joint Oceans Commission. Mr. Panetta thanks for coming.

Leon Panetta: Nice to be with you.

Colin Sullivan: You've been heavily involved in the last few years in ocean issues and this is Oceans Week on Capitol Hill. Many people have described a crisis in terms of protecting our oceans. Why is it a crisis? Why has it risen to that level?

Leon Panetta: We've had two ocean commissions in the last few years, the Pew Ocean Commission that I chaired, the U.S. National Ocean Commission that Admiral Watkins chaired. These were commissions that were made up of very different people. And they did their work. I think we did about two or three years of work and the same is true for the other commission. Both commissions came to the same conclusion that our oceans are in crisis. And they're in crisis because we're losing our fisheries. This is really the greatest resource we have in our oceans and our fisheries, 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean are gone. We're seeing pollution increasing along the coastline. We're seeing what are called dead areas, dead zones, appearing in the coast that are the size of Rhode Island off of the gulf. We're seeing beaches being closed, literally 20,000 beaches being closed because of pollution. We're seeing coastal development erode our wetlands and do away with our wetlands. And frankly, from a governance point of view, our governance is in chaos in the sense that there is very little coordination between the federal, state and local agencies that are responsible for the ocean. If you add all of that up it creates a huge crisis in terms of our ocean.

Colin Sullivan: Now your commission gave the Bush administration a D-minus for how it's treated, how it's handled ocean issues. And yet James Connaughton, the top White House environmental adviser, recently said on Capitol Hill, quote, "The Bush administration has acted with force on a very high level on these issues." Do you disagree with that? Why did you give them a D-minus?

Leon Panetta: There's no question that the president has taken some action here, and we commended the president for issuing an ocean action plan, for putting together a committee, for the first time, to try to coordinate policy. We've got a myriad of agencies that are involved with the oceans and very little coordination. So we really commend him for putting together the committee. Our concern is whether or not action is being taken to deal with the problems that I just pointed out. That's the difference. And right now I have to say that we're still a long ways from seeing any kind of solid action being taken to improve the situation with regards to our oceans.

Colin Sullivan: But is that in the lap right now of the administration or in Congress? I mean you have the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization pending. You have the NOAA Organic Act pending, a Law of the Sea pending. I mean what's the problem in Congress? You're a former member of Congress, why can't they get these things done? They seem fairly noncontroversial.

Leon Panetta: You've pointed out the problem. We do have some bills going and beginning to move, but the problem is that these bills have not passed the Congress, that we haven't gotten the administration to really come up to Capitol Hill to push these bills to get them done. And so we've got a number of bills that are up there. We've got what's called the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, an organic act that would lock them into a statutory law, instead of just having been created by an executive order. We've got Magnuson-Stevens. We've got issues related to Law of the Seas. We've got issues related to the Coastal Zone Management Act, the reauthorization of that act. There are a series of bills that we're trying to push to get through. But the problem is that there isn't that kind of urgency that we felt was so important. That sense of urgency is lacking. Now we do have, for the first time, a group of senators who have come together and said to us, both commissions working together as a joint initiative, what can we do to take action here? And we are responding to that. We're going to tell them 10 steps that they can take to hopefully deal with the crisis that is our oceans.

Colin Sullivan: Now you're about to release that this week.

Leon Panetta: That's correct.

Colin Sullivan: Can you give us a little preview on what those 10 steps might be? Or are you going to wait to release that?

Leon Panetta: Well, the important things, I mean they reflect a lot of the views that both commissions had. Number one, we need a national ocean policy. The oceans are one of the few places, in terms of resources, where we don't have a national policy. We've done it for clean water. We've done it for clean air. We do not have a national policy that says we're committed to protecting our oceans. We do need to, as I said, try to get NOAA as a central agency to advance our ocean policy. We need regional planning that emphasizes ecosystem planning in order to bring together the issues of the land and the sea. We need better science. We need better research. We need better education. And we need to have a Law of the Seas Treaty, which is up there on the Hill. It's supported by the administration, supported by the Defense Department, supported by the Department of the Navy, supported by every group that we know of. And yet it still hasn't come to a final vote. And that's a tragedy, because that would create at least some kind of uniformity with regards to the world dealing with our oceans.

Colin Sullivan: Also a big factor is money.

Leon Panetta: That's right.

Colin Sullivan: And that the budget you propose as part of your commission is $3.9 billion for oceans.

Leon Panetta: That is correct.

Colin Sullivan: The entire NOAA budget is about $3.9 billion. I mean how can you get that kind of money realistically in the current climate with the war in Iraq and et cetera?

Leon Panetta: One of our recommendations is that we establish a trust fund. Actually both commissions mentioned the importance of establishing an ocean trust fund that would then be dedicated to providing funding for the science, for the research, for the education that's necessary here. I mean right now I think the amount of money that goes into ocean research is about $650 million. That is less than 3 percent or 4 percent of the total research budget for an area that constitutes more territory than our land mass because of our oceans that we have jurisdiction in. If we can spend billions to go after and search for life on other planets, we certainly can spend a few billion more trying to protect life in our oceans.

Colin Sullivan: Now does the White House need to spend more capital and put more effort on the Hill? I mean it sounds lik, Connaughton sounds like he's serious about oceans. That may be PR, but I mean what does the White House need to do, physically go up to the Hill and push this out?

Leon Panetta: I obviously commend them for the steps that they've taken, but, you know, I've often said a hundred years ago Teddy Roosevelt took the step of saying this country has to make the effort to protect our land for the future. Protect those unique areas that are so important to our legacy that we pass on to our children. We've got to make the same commitment with regards to protecting our ocean. This president has the opportunity to do that, but it isn't just a question of talking about it. It isn't just a question about creating committees. It is a question about taking action and providing leadership to get it done.

Colin Sullivan: OK, I'd like to shift direction a little bit. You were the former, one of the chiefs of staff for President Clinton back in the '90s. There's a lot of focus lately on climate change, specifically on the Bush administration, according to environmental groups, not doing enough, not being aggressive enough on climate change. First of all, do you think that President Clinton should've been more aggressive to go after some sort of mandatory greenhouse gas cap while he was in office? Do you think he should have made that a higher priority?

Leon Panetta: Well there's no question that the Clinton administration was aware of the problem. Vice President Gore obviously is making headlines these days, was very interested in dealing with the issue. There was the effort to try to arrive at the Kyoto agreement and try to get that resolved so that countries would try to target on it. There was a lot of criticism at the time, but we were, the administration was able to get that done. Were there other steps that could have been taken? Of course, but I think the administration was committed to dealing with the fundamental problem that it saw as very real, which was global warming. I think this administration has to come to the same conclusion. We have to stop making excuses for whether it exists or not. We have to understand that science pretty much has come to the conclusion that this is real. We're seeing the results of that happening. And now we've got to take action to deal with it.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think the communication within the White House at the time hurt the ability of climate change policies to go forward? I mean was Al Gore listened to or was he not adamantly pursuing some of his environmental policies, sort of towards the last few years of the Clinton administration?

Leon Panetta: I mean I have to tell you from my own experience that I have never seen a president and a vice president who were more committed to dealing with environmental issues. The president of the United States issued a number of executive orders near the end of his term that in large measure dealt with environmental issues. In addition to that I can tell you that there wasn't a meeting in which the president and the vice president didn't talk about the importance of dealing with environmental issues of one kind or another. Because they did understand that this was something that they had to take action on. Could they have done more? Of course they could've done more, but I think they did exercise a tremendous amount of important leadership.

Colin Sullivan: What would your advice be for 2008 presidential candidates, especially on the Democratic side, in terms of putting environmental issues, and specifically climate change, on their agenda? Should they lay out a specific climate plan on how they would deal with greenhouse gas reductions? Do you think that's a good campaign issue going into 2008? Do you think they should have a detailed plan?

Leon Panetta: I think this country is facing a set of unprecedented crises. Not only the war in Iraq, we're facing a deficit that is a record fiscal deficit. We're facing the problems of immigration. We're facing the problems with high gas prices. And we're facing the problem of global warming. If a presidential candidate is going to be real for this country and important for this country, that candidate has to lay out how do we deal with each of those issues? And global warming has to be one of the issues in which any presidential candidate must lay out a clear plan for this country as to how we deal with it. It is a crisis.

Colin Sullivan: Now John McCain is a candidate on the Republican side. Does he have the edge going into that cycle on climate change, on environmental issues, on energy issues?

Leon Panetta: He's provided a lot of leadership on this issue. He's taken on a lot of people in his own party that have resisted action in this area. So I think he has shown leadership on it. And it would be interesting to have John McCain basically lay out what steps need to be taken from this point on to deal with the threat of global warming.

Colin Sullivan: But you do expect it to be a major issue of the 2008 presidential cycle?

Leon Panetta: I don't think there's any question. I think it's real. I think we know it's real. We see it happening every day. And if you relate that to energy policy and high gas prices I think the two come together. The next president of the United States, if that president is going to be successful at all, that president is going to have to confront that issue.

Colin Sullivan: OK, Mr. Panetta we're out of time. Thanks for coming on.

Leon Panetta: Nice to be with you.

Colin Sullivan: I'm Colin Sullivan. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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