Restoring the U.S. standing in the world and overcoming other challenges of the COVID era won’t be easy. But a good place for Vice President Joe Biden, if he wins, to start will be the oceans that surround and support our troubled country.
Tackling the pressing problems playing out in the shared realm of the Big Blue will generate waves of international goodwill with positive ripple effects across other major areas: climate change, the extinction crisis, plastic pollution, sustainable economic development, environmental justice and the rebuilding of diplomatic relationships.
The state of the oceans reflects the recent chaos in our country. Absorbing heat and carbon from our fossil fuel addiction, they’re rising, becoming more acidic and bringing more extreme hurricanes. They’re rapidly filling with plastic and other pollution due to our voracious overconsumption — and all this is getting worse.
But the oceans also showcase the amazing possibilities of renewal and recovery. It wasn’t that long ago that we killed off most of the world’s great whales, leaving many species on the brink of extinction. Then, in 1986, we banned commercial whaling, and most species (with tragic exceptions like right whales) have made remarkable comebacks.
Not only is that good for the whales and our souls, but it’s also helped restore the healthy ocean ecosystems that whales create as they move, eat and circulate nutrients. It helps combat climate change by sequestering tons of carbon — more than most forests. Recent studies estimate each whale is worth millions of dollars in the services it provides to our ocean and atmosphere.
Here are three things actions the new president can do in his first year to heal our oceans and ourselves:
End offshore drilling and fracking
The Trump administration tried to expand dirty and dangerous offshore oil drilling into almost all federal waters by proposing the most aggressive offshore leasing plan in U.S. history. We stopped him in the courts and on the streets, but Big Oil and its conservative enablers are likely to revive that assault as soon as they can.
That’s why Biden must use his executive authority to end the offshore fossil fuel leasing program and permanently protect our waters from offshore drilling. It would expand on permanent protections President Obama ordered for parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, which Trump tried to overturn but the courts blocked.
Biden should order all offshore drilling to be phased out as soon as possible, including blocking new drilling permits in the Arctic and Alaska’s Cook Inlet and encouraging the decommissioning of drilling platforms off California and the thousands of offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
While offshore drilling is being phased out, he should also ban fracking on existing wells in federal waters. Millions of gallons of produced water and toxic chemicals get dumped in U.S. oceans every year from offshore fracking, harming marine life. Even if Biden continues to resist a total fracking ban, we can make a strong case for starting with a ban on offshore fracking.
To protect our oceans and climate, Biden also must block recent moves to expand Arctic drilling. The federal government has recklessly pushed expanded oil and gas drilling in Alaska, fueling its rapid warming and lighting the fuse on the region’s massive carbon bomb.
Biden should undo that damage by banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, stopping new oil leases in the Western Arctic Reserve, revoking federal authorization of the Alaska LNG project, and blocking offshore drilling and Marine Mammal Protection Act permits for projects in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and Cook Inlet.
Block increased plastic production
Ocean plastic pollution is an urgent existential crisis that our leaders have ignored for too long. Yet Big Oil and the petrochemical industry are aggressively moving to steeply increase U.S. plastic production using our oversupply of fracked gas. They’re now moving to build some of the world’s biggest plastic-making plants — in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — and Biden must block those projects.
He should order a moratorium on new petrochemical facilities while agencies study the harm plastic pollution does to public health and the environment. Meanwhile, he should order updates to decades-old pollution-control regulations on the petrochemical industry, require the EPA to enforce the rules, and create strict new limits on packaging and other single-use plastic products, including using the federal government’s leverage as the country’s biggest purchaser of goods and services.
Like Big Tobacco and Big Oil, the plastics industry has misled the American people about the public health threats posed by their products, including promoting the myth that plastic can be recycled. Most can’t, and it gets dumped on developing countries, then often ends up in the oceans.
The president can stop those exports, along with exports of plastic nurdles and fossil fuels, with a stroke of his pen. Along with a large coalition of 350+ groups, we’re urging adoption of our eight-point Presidential Plastic Action Plan, to be unveiled in early December.
Expand ocean habitat protections
The president has the sole authority to create marine monuments and other permanent protections of ocean habitat. Biden should immediately use that power to protect vast swaths of our oceans from fossil fuel extraction, deep-sea mining and the most damaging fishing practices, including drift gillnets, longlines and the crab and lobster traps responsible for an increasing number of deadly whale entanglements in recent years.
We need to better protect the biological diversity in our oceans. While 26 percent of federal waters are now protected, that’s concentrated in the remote western Pacific Ocean, far from threats like pollution and overfishing. We support the protection of 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, but urgently need more protections, soon, in the critically important marine ecosystems close to our shores: a connected network of marine protected areas aimed at protecting half of our most-stressed ocean ecosystems.
President-elect Biden should order the National Marine Fisheries Service to stop dragging its feet on finalizing expanded critical habitat designations for humpback whales and Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Ocean. He should demand strict new protections against whale entanglements, including incentivizing conversion to ropeless crab and lobster traps.
As commander-in-chief, he should order the military to choose options for training exercises that minimize the use of sonar and explosions that harm whales and other marine mammals. He should issue an executive order making mandatory all voluntary federal ship speed limits to reduce the rising number of whales killed by ship strikes.
Finally, Vice President Biden should strengthen our international alliances and treaties to enforce endangered species protections around the world, lower fishing quotas to prevent the overfishing of bluefin tuna and other migratory species, and join other nations that have ratified the Law of the Sea in setting strict, binding limits on the dangerous emerging issue of deep-sea mining.
All nations essentially share one vast ocean, the conduit for most international trade and a repository for much of our waste, pollution and excess carbon — but above all, the wellspring of life on this planet.
We need to become far better stewards of our seas, and that has to begin now.
Miyoko Sakashita is Oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.