The ocean under Biden
In 1890 the Census declared the frontier closed but in 1983 President Ronald Reagan established a new frontier, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching 200 miles out from America’s shoreline. At 3.4 million square miles it’s an area larger than our continental landmass.
Unfortunately for almost four years President Trump has treated the nation’s ocean frontier as little more than a gas station and a garbage dump as he attempted to open up 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling despite bipartisan opposition from governors of coastal states. His administration also undermined environmental laws and regulations from clean water standards to mercury emissions in ways that continue to threaten U.S. coastal jobs, wildlife and seafood.
So, what can we expect from a Biden-Harris administration when it comes to our public seas and blue economy that’s worth an estimated $373 billion?
“Big picture, a return to science on how we approach the ocean and ocean policy including bipartisanship,” says Michael Conathan, an ocean policy expert at the Aspen Institute who in the past has worked both for the democratic-oriented Center for American Progress and for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
Early steps include naming John Kerry as a cabinet-level climate czar and pledging to reenter the Paris Climate Accord that he signed. Climate change is already altering the physical nature of the ocean including its circulation, temperature, chemistry and color. Kerry was the most active secretary of State in history in terms of both climate and ocean policies and understands how the two are linked.
The Biden team will likely reestablish a National Ocean Policy (NOP) first set up by the Obama administration in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. NOP directs federal agencies to coordinate with each other, states and tribal governments in developing regional planning for healthier seas. Trump withdrew federal participation after Republican members of Congress branded it “Obamacare for the Ocean.”
President-elect Biden can also be expected to reverse Trump directives that encourage new offshore oil and gas development and instead encourage offshore wind energy projects that have been impeded by Trump’s Department of Interior. A Biden administration is also being encouraged by supporters (including in a letter signed by over 100 environmental organizations) to reestablish protections for National Marine Monuments such as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument that Trump opened to commercial fishing during the campaign. It will also restore the unimpeded work of ocean and climate science at agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
One quick way of reestablishing morale at the nation’s leading ocean and weather service agency might be to choose the next NOAA administrator from within the ranks of its dedicated public servants. Although not reported as a top contender, one good candidate would be 35-year veteran Craig McLean who as acting chief scientist issued a report following “Sharpiegate” during which President Trump claimed a hurricane was heading for Alabama when it wasn’t. Trump’s appointed head of NOAA (under pressure from the White House) then castigated the weather service office in Alabama for assuring people they were not in fact in harm’s way. McLean’s report suggested political appointees take “scientific integrity training.” He was recently fired as chief scientist and replaced by a climate denier.
Beyond that, mainstream Democratic figures including Kerry, John Podesta and House Resources Committee Chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) are pushing for major ocean legislation around climate, blue parks and plastic that could benefit both ocean health and coastal economies.
These include an Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act recently introduced in the House, a Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act and a 30 by 30 Senate resolution to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030. The later two were introduced by outgoing Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
For the past two years my organization, in partnership with the Center for the Blue Economy, has been working with businesses, policymakers, conservationists and others (including Sec. Kerry, Leon Panetta and Dr. Sylvia Earle) to develop an Ocean Climate Action Plan identifying ways to use ocean resources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while helping coastal communities to equitably adapt to climate change impacts. Many of these ideas can now be found in the House bill.
Without a Democratic Senate, however, the odds of passing ambitious ocean acts into law could recede like the tide, at least for the next two years (depending on a pair of Senate runoff elections in Georgia next month).
That is unfortunate as ocean and coastal protection has historically been seen as a bipartisan issue. The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, the main federal fisheries law, is named after a democratic and a republican senator. Its bipartisan reform in 2006 led to U.S. leadership in sustainable fishing.
Also one of the world’s great ocean reserves, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii that contains over 70 percent of U.S. corals and is larger than all our national parks combined was established by Republican President George W. Bush and expanded by Democratic President Barack Obama.
The reality is people in every state care about the ocean. Even Trump reversed himself late in his campaign and promised not to do any of the oil drilling off Florida he’d long been pushing. That along with his appeal to conservative Cuban-Americans may have helped assure his win in Florida even as he went on to lose the national election.
If Biden’s promise to try and reestablish bipartisan progress in the wake of the most partisan and divided election in a century can hope to be realized, perhaps the most practical place to start would be in protecting the nation’s public seas and restoring the blue in our red, white and blue.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group.
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