Politics Could Sink Revamp of U.S. Ocean Policy
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 22, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration and the U.S. Congress must work together to forge the political will to reshape the nation's ocean policy, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
Retired Admiral James Watkins said the work of the commission "pales in comparison with what is needed now" and warned that time is already running out.
The 610 page final report by the commission, released Monday, presents a troubling view of the nation's oceans and coastal areas, which are plagued by pollution, nutrient runoff, erosion, overfishing and sprawling development.
It outlines 212 recommendations to transform U.S. ocean policy and restore the nation's oceans and coastal areas by revamping the haphazard mix of federal, state and local authorities and regulations.
The commission said the U.S. must reshape its oceans policy to reflect an ecosystem based management approach, increase investment in ocean research and strengthen the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), which is the lead oceans agency in the federal government.
"Business as usual is unacceptable," Watkins told the committee. "There is a mandate for change and the overriding message of our report is that we need to act now."
But quick action appears unlikely, even though several bills implementing various recommendations put forth by the commission have been introduced in Congress.
"I believe the Senate is going to have to take the lead on this," U.S. Representative Sam Farr, a California Democrat, told the panel.
Farr, who is cochair of the House Oceans Caucus, noted that a bill that restructures federal oversight of ocean policy is set for consideration today by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Yet even the bill's author - South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings - has little confidence that it will pass the Congress this session.
"I do not know if it can happen this year with the crunch of the election," Hollings said.
NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said the Bush administration is already moving forward to implement some of the commission's recommendations, including its call to boost watershed protection, research funding and cooperative conservation efforts.
As for the bulk of the commission's report, Lautenbacher said the administration is "committed to working closely with this committee and the Congress on these issues."
But the administration has not weighed in on which changes to the governance structure it supports or opposes, and critics believe the White House has had ample time to form its opinions.
"I have watched this administration on environmental issues for too long and I have not seen them step up to the plate," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
Louisiana Democrat John Breaux challenged Lautenbacher on the administration's reluctance to take positions on specific recommendations - in particular the Oceans Trust Fund.
The report calls for the creation of an Oceans Trust Fund to be established to pay for implementation of 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.
The earmarked money currently goes into the U.S. Treasury.
"We do not have a position at this point," Lautenbacher said of the trust fund. "There are pros and cons that we have to get through the system."
Breaux, who supports the trust fund, said he found that response "incredible."
"You cannot honestly say [the administration] has not looked at it," Breaux said.
Lautenbacher responded that the administration would make its determination in its official response to Congress - the law that created the commission calls on the White House to send Congress its response to the report within 90 days.
Some critics of the trust fund, including environmentalists, say it could be used as an excuse to roll back a federal moratorium that bans drilling off much of the nation's coast.
"That is a bogus argument against it," said Watkins, who said it makes sense to use money from offshore drilling to carry out the recommendations in the report.
"The states do not want unfunded mandates and neither do we," Watkins said.
Alaska Republican Governor Frank Murkowski, who testified on behalf of the National Governors Association, echoed that concern.
"The nation's governors feel there are a few key principles that should be integrated into any future national ocean policy crafted in response to the report," Murkowski said. "These are: no federal preemption of state laws, recognition of state primacy, and better coordination of existing laws and government programs with no new unfunded mandates."
The push and pull between states and the federal government is likely to emerge as a key challenge if lawmakers press forward with the report's recommendations.
Breaux noted that the problem of dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are in part caused by human activities thousands of miles away and said solving these problems requires strong federal action.
"States cannot do it by themselves," Breaux said.
Watkins added that the United States must show international leadership in order to restore and protect the oceans.
He criticized the Senate for its failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets forth international standards for using and safeguarding the oceans.
Despite broad support, a handful of Republican Senators is blocking ratification of the treaty. They contend it gives the UN too much power.
The international accord has been ratified by 143 nations.
"It is an overwhelmingly positive thing," Watkins said, "[Ratification] gives us a seat at the table - other nations are waiting for us to take this leadership role."
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain echoed Watkin's comments and said if the full Senate gets to weigh in on Law of the Sea ratification "the vote would be 95 to five" in favor.
The Arizona Republican honed in on the issue of climate change and the concern about the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the oceans.
He cited a new study that shows the oceans are directly impacted by the increased CO2 that is being pumped into the atmosphere by human activities and called the Bush administration's position on climate change "disgraceful."
Lautenbacher said the administration's policy is "to slow down the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and to stop it ... through controls and voluntary restrictions."
"It is technology that will take us out of this problem," he told the committee.
McCain said that view is shortsighted and irresponsible.
"We are every single day laying a burden on our children and grandchildren," McCain said. "The evidence is there in overwhelming fashion and we are paying a very heavy price."
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