Maritime sanctuaries must be protected from offshore oil drilling
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President Donald Trump wants to open up our national marine sanctuaries to offshore oil drilling.  His desire to expand energy exploration efforts into these protected areas is contained in his Offshore Energy Executive Order.  In doing so, he is attacking a legacy of laws, leaders, and local communities that have long fought to prevent any attempts to drill for oil in our treasured marine sanctuaries. 

The national marine sanctuary program was set up by President Richard Nixon to protect particularly important and unique areas of America’s oceans.  Currently, there are 13 national marine sanctuaries in the United States and no president has ever reduced or eliminated any of these remarkable areas.  Marine sanctuaries are critical to the economy, beauty, and security of our country.  They help restore sustainable fisheries, buffer the impacts of climate change, and protect against the dangerous risks of offshore oil drilling.   


California has the most marine sanctuaries, but also a long history of oil exploration and oil spills.  The first ocean oil drilling in the United States was located off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1896.  Seventy years later, in that same area, California experienced its largest, and our nation’s third worst, oil spill.  Since then, California sustained several more oil spills that caused environmental devastation and economic downturns in its tourism and fishing industries. 

In the 1980s, the federal government pushed to open up the California coastline to further offshore oil drilling.  However, environmentalists and the fishing and tourism industries, along with their government representatives, fought back.  Local communities implemented zoning laws to limit onshore oil infrastructure.  A bipartisan delegation of California Congress members then authored and passed a moratorium on the Interior Department budget that banned the agency from spending any money to pursue offshore lease sales.  Concerned that the coastline remained vulnerable, our leaders then looked to the federal marine sanctuary program to protect the oceans from any oil exploitation and extraction.   

Normally, the Department of Commerce is empowered to designate marine sanctuaries, after a coordinated and lengthy process with local communities.  By the early 1990s, however, the executive branch in Washington, D.C. appeared to be unwilling and unmotivated to designate more marine sanctuaries.  Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats in Congress took the initiative and passed legislation that not only reauthorized the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, but also designated the Hawaiian Humpback Whale, Stellwagen Bank, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. 

I am fortunate to now represent and live along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  The legislation behind that sanctuary was the result of a unified Central Coast effort supported by local businessmen, fishermen, environmentalists, farmers, scientists, and citizens working with their representative in Congress.  Known as the “Serengeti of the Sea” for its diverse and rich underwater life, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary is larger than Yellowstone National Park and deeper than the Grand Canyon.  People come from all over the world to enjoy our sanctuary.  Tourists drive along the coast or take a chartered boat out on the bay to watch whales and dolphins breach ocean waves and otters frolic in kelp forests.  Families flock to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Sanctuary Visitor Center and fill restaurants to eat fresh seafood caught by local fishermen.  College students and scientists conduct research at the numerous marine research institutions that dot the coast of the sanctuary.  As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, we must also acknowledge that everybody is able to enjoy the fruits of our sanctuary because our leaders and local community members had the foresight to come together and create laws that preserve our oceans.    

Our marine sanctuaries are living legacies that belong to all of us.  It will take a lot more than an executive order by President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE to turn back the clock on the incredible work done to establish these treasures.  For three of our nation’s sanctuaries, including Monterey Bay, it would take an act of Congress to open them up for oil exploration and exploitation.  That will not happen on my watch.  I am part of that legacy of people and laws that have been put in place to protect the beauty and resources of the Monterey Bay.  Together, we will fight not only for our marine sanctuaries in California and across our nation, but also to preserve the many benefits that our oceans bestow upon our communities, country, and future generations.

Panetta represents California's 20th District and serves on the Natural Resources Committee.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.