by Michael Conathan
This piece was originally printed as an op-ed in the Energy Guardian.
America’s oceans provide tremendous value to our economy, and are among the most valuable natural resources we possess. In an effort to maintain both the financial and environmental benefits of our marine resources, last week, the White House issued a draft implementation plan for the National Ocean Policy outlining the specific steps it will direct federal agencies to take to establish a more comprehensive, collaborative, and efficient approach to managing our ocean resources.
Since its initial release in 2009, the National Ocean Policy has been pilloried by the president’s political opponents as a misguided effort to circumvent congressional approval and impose new regulations that slow the pace of business and innovation. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The policy creates no new regulations and relies entirely on existing authority to do precisely what Republicans have touted as one of their highest policy priorities—improve the efficiency of the federal government.
Much of the opposition centers on a concept known as coastal and marine spatial planning. In most cases, planning is considered a good thing. Business plans are the foundation of most successful ventures. And across the country, federal, state, and local governments have established land use plans that prioritize certain activities to protect private property and ensure we get the best value from public space.
Yet somehow, when these principles are applied to our oceans, even those who recognize the value of solid, well-conceived plans suddenly decry them as the tactics of government heavies, coming to kill jobs and abscond with our fundamental freedoms.
At a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee in October of last year, Congressman Tom McClintock (R, CA) made the hyperbolic assertion that the National Ocean Policy’s effort to establish comprehensive ocean planning would mean “the death of all land use planning” in this country. His point, apparently, was that thoughtful planning for activities occurring on land is necessary for a civilized society—one would doubt, for example, that Rep. McClintock would be pleased if his next-door-neighbors were permitted to turn their home into an industrial site. But similar attempts to prioritize activities in our oceans are somehow an impingement on fundamental freedoms.
To be clear, the National Ocean Policy’s planning effort does not constitute the “zoning” of every inch of the more than four million square miles of our exclusive economic zone. Rather, it is a tool intended to bring all ocean agencies and stakeholders to the table to develop a comprehensive picture of what areas are most valuable for which industrial, recreational, and conservation purposes.
More than half of our nation’s population lives in coastal counties—which all together account for less than 20 percent of our nation’s land area. Increasingly, we are looking across the waves and beyond the horizon to drive our economy. By creating a single, dynamic register piecing together valuable fishing areas, shipping lanes, oil and gas leasing areas, critical habitat, and priority zones for emerging uses like offshore wind energy development, we will ensure the American people get the highest value from one of our greatest natural assets.
Without the coordination that the National Ocean Policy would bring to the agencies and laws that regulate and permit the activities we undertake in our ocean space, private investment becomes less likely, development of new projects is delayed, and an endless stream of lawsuits emerges. Imagine all the time and resources wasted by one Rhode Island company, for example, that spent years exploring the possibility of constructing an offshore wind farm only to discover that its proposed site was directly in the path of submarine traffic heading in and out of a navy base in New London, CT. The reforms inherent in the National Oceans Policy will prevent such wasteful actions.
We can either continue blindly on with single-use decisions that leave America’s developing ocean industries falling farther behind our international counterparts, harm our environmental resources, and fail to acknowledge cumulative effects, or we can think bigger and think better.
President Obama’s National Ocean Policy recognizes that now is the time for common sense and partnership—not nonsense and partisanship—as we determine how to manage our invaluable oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes.
This op-ed was originally published in the Energy Guardian.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.