Does Biden have an ocean policy?

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While not having an official ocean policy within its first 100 days, the Biden administration’s approach to managing our public seas looks destined to be of historical significance. It’s on par with President Reagan’s 1983 declaration establishing a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that gave the United States stewardship over 4.4 million square miles, an area larger than the U.S. landmass.

Days after taking office the president signed an executive order to fully conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and 30 percent of its waters by 2030. This reflects what scientists have long argued is necessary to maintain biodiversity and climate resilience in the midst of a global extinction crisis. Protecting 30 percent of our EEZ may not in fact be a major lift given that a large part of that (plus 70 percent of U.S. corals) is already protected in the 583,000 square mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Northwest Hawaii, established by George W. Bush and expanded by Barack Obama.  

Obama also created the modest-sized deepwater Canyons and Seamounts Monument off New England in 2016. In 2020 during his failed reelection bid, then-President Donald Trump reopened it to commercial fishing. The Biden administration is being pressured by supporters to restore the Canyons’ protections and create new ocean monuments closer to where people live. This, despite strong opposition from commercial fishermen who argue the U.S. already has effective fisheries management and doesn’t need national parks in the sea. One of the world’s strongest supporters of 30×30 however, going back to his days as secretary of State, is special presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry.  

In late March, Biden also pledged the U.S. will generate 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030. That’s enough to power more than 20 million homes. While about 1,000 times what the U.S. presently produces, this would still amount to only a quarter of what the European Union plans to have by 2030. Still it would mark a major shift — including in well-paying energy jobs — from offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, to wind farms on the shallow continental shelf of the Mid-Atlantic. While ratepayers and conservation groups are generally supportive (wind is now cheaper than natural gas), some want to slow the process down saying it’s too much, too fast. Many commercial fishermen also oppose offshore wind.

Along with union jobs in offshore wind, the biggest potential blue economy jobs generator may be in coastal research and restoration. Ten billion dollars for restoring “living infrastructure” including dunes, estuaries and marshes along the coasts and on the Great Lakes, was one of the requests made during two days of virtual Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP) lobbying in mid-April. Hundreds of marine advocates, including me, from 30 states and territories met with a dozen federal agencies and 150 house and senate members and staff. In a White House meeting, the idea of jump-starting a new coastal restoration industry was greeted as a natural extension of the Civilian Climate Corps being promoted by the administration.   

Other administration efforts that aligned with the ocean advocates include the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) expansion of the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to give pre-disaster support to low-income towns, tribes and territories to help them prepare for climate disaster rather than just fund recovery. Biden’s Healthy Ports Program would reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) from diesel and other air pollutants to the benefit of U.S. ports’ fence-line neighbors, mostly low-income communities of color. His budget would also increase the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) funding by 25 percent to $6.9 billion, including $800 million for climate research.

To keep its quickly-evolving ocean strategy salty, the White House has put some top marine people in charge. Along with John Kerry, who has a deep and abiding understanding of ocean policy, they’ve brought in Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a former administrator at NOAA, to be the deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She will work with Kerry and Climate Czar Gina McCathy.  

In addition Biden has nominated oceanographer and former NOAA Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad to lead NOAA, and ocean policy veteran and recent environmental publisher Monica Medina as assistant secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science. 

A year ago when John Kerry, Rick Spinrad and others signed onto the OCAP, which I helped launch, it was an aspirational document from the far shoals of marine conservation. But its claims that ocean and coastal resources can reduce GHGs, enable coastal communities to equitably adapt to climate impacts, while creating good jobs and economic opportunity, now read like Biden White House talking points.   

If all of Biden’s promised blue economy investments find their way into the big infrastructure plan that the White House now calls The American Jobs Plan, the U.S. could find it has an effective ocean policy after all, one that could turn the tide for U.S. communities, both human and wild, from sea to shining sea.  

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. 

Tags 30 by 30 initiative Barack Obama Biden climate policy climate chance climate crisis Don Young Donald Trump Gina McCarthy Global warming Joe Biden John Kerry ocean conservation ocean policy Rick Spinrad Suzanne Bonamici

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