Congress Wades Into Ocean Debate
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, April 23, 2004 (ENS) - At two Senate hearings Thursday, federal lawmakers praised the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy for its work but raised doubts about the political feasibility of implementing its recommendations. Lawmakers appeared skeptical of the plan to create a National Oceans Council and even less certain there will be support for setting aside a dedicated Oceans Trust Fund.
The 514 page report, released Tuesday, lays out some 200 recommendations for how the U.S. government should revamp and strengthen its commitment and framework for managing the oceans.
It offers a "practical blueprint for ocean policy in the 21st century," retired Admiral James Watkins, chair of the commission, told the Senate Commerce and Appropriations Committees. "It lays out a logical sequence of actions that can begin immediately."
"The current management regime is outdated and inconsistent with an ecosystem based management," Watkins said. "There is a lack of coordination, goals and funding at all levels."
U.S. ocean policy is a haphazard mix of federal, state and local authorities and regulations. More than 60 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee some 20 agencies and permanent commissions with ocean related activities, which are governed by more than 140 federal ocean related statutes.
"Everyone agrees the oceans are in trouble and that the management regime we have now is not adequate," Watkins said.
A key recommendation for improving coordination among federal agencies is the creation of a National Oceans Council within the Executive Office of the President.
This council would be composed of cabinet secretaries of departments and directors of independent agencies with ocean and coastal responsibilities, advised by a nonfederal Presidential Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy, and supported by a small Office of Ocean Policy.
That concept would do little to remedy the situation, several lawmakers said.
"You have a heck of a good report," Senator Ernest Hollings told the commission members. "But if that is not a nonstarter, then I have never seen one."
The South Carolina Democrat said "you will have all the cabinet members in there with their interests ... and they will fuss."
"That oceans policy council to me takes away from what we got right now," said Hollings, who expressed concern the report does not focus enough on the need for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to serve as the leading federal ocean agency.
Watkins defended the governance changes in the report and stressed that "there should be a leadership position in the White House to bring together all these disparate groups."
"It is not going to work by itself, it works if the President has a commitment to it," Watkins said. "Congress can put pressure on the White House and tell them this is a good idea. We have not upset any of the existing structures."
Without strong coordination in the White House, Watkins said, Congress will never get the "integrated budgets" the commission believes are necessary to ensure steady and focused funding for a revamped oceans policy.
"We are not suggesting this does not include a greatly strengthened NOAA," added Commission member Andrew Rosenberg. "NOAA still has to be the lead for implementation."
California Democratic Congressman Sam Farr told his Senate colleagues that the House Oceans Caucus is already drafting legislation - know as "BOB or Big Oceans Bill" - to implement many of the organization recommendations outlined in the report.
"Many of the details are still being worked out; however, the broad sections of BOB include national governance, regional governance, science and technology, and education," Farr said. "We will be introducing our legislation this session."
Farr stressed the economic importance of the oceans and coasts - these regions add more than $1 trillion annually to the U.S. economy.
"It is up to each of us to not let this unprecedented opportunity pass us by," Farr said. "This is a bipartisan issue that cannot wait until after the next election."
But his House colleague, Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers, was more cautious in his outlook.
He said the report's call for "an organic act of NOAA," which would redefine and strengthen its focus on oceans policies, is critical.
"We want to pass a bill into law this year," Ehlers told the Senate panel, "but this will not be easy."
Ehlers said the report does not "clearly specify priorities for funding."
"It will be extremely difficult to find $4 billion in new money for the oceans," he said. "I agree there are enough problems and issues that it requires this much new funding, but I want to make sure Congress is not hit with sticker shock."
The commission calls for a doubling of investment in ocean research, strengthening the link between coastal and watershed management, and implementing the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).
The cost of the commission's recommendations is about $1.3 billion in the first year, $2.4 billion in the second year, and $3.2 billion annually thereafter.
This includes some $650 million annually for the IOOS, which Wakins says is "the only program that we are really pushing really hard."
"The rest is policy, but this must go forward," said Watkins, who defended the recommendation to create an Ocean Policy Trust Fund to assist federal agencies and state governments in carrying out its recommendations.
The fund would use some $4 billion of the $5 billion annually collected as federal revenues from Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas development and would include any future rents from permitted uses of federal waters. The earmarked money currently goes into the U.S. Treasury.
"We are saying that is a legitimate revenue stream for these policies," Watkins said. "We are giving you an idea that has merit."
But Hollings, who said he strongly supports much of the work of the commission, told Watkins that "there ain't gonna be no trust fund. I can tell you that."
Hollings said the commission should refine the spending priorities to give Congress a clearer idea of how- and where - the funding increases should be spent.
"Do not worry about sticker shock," Hollings said. "But you have to determine the needs."
Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said the report was calling for enormous increases and cautioned "there is not a section of the government not seeking an increase to meet the technological challenges they face."
"The real problem is going to be to find the commitment from the Congress and the administration in terms of committing dollars on a steady basis," Stevens said.
The commission's draft report has been sent to governors and released to the public for a 30 day review and comment period from April 20 through May 21.
It will then incorporate the comments of the governors and the public and send its recommendations to the White House for a 90 day review and comment period.
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