On World Oceans Day: Gulf oil disaster underscores need for a National Ocean Policy

Tuesday, June 8th, is World Oceans Day. As the disastrous Gulf oil spill continues, it is clear that our country needs a national ocean policy – like a Clean Air or Water Act – to protect our oceans. NRDC has been promoting adoption of such a policy for some time, but the urgency now is greater than ever. The President should move expeditiously to adopt such a policy.

Shortly after World Oceans Day last year, President Obama directed a high-level Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to develop (with significant public input) recommendations for a national ocean policy that would better protect our oceans. This action was taken because, as two national commissions have found, our oceans are under increasing pressure and are showing signs of serious decline – from oxygen deprived dead zones to depleted fish populations to contaminated beachwater.  Now we must add a massive oil spill to the list. Just before the rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the President’s task force completed its work and submitted its recommendations to the President.

A national ocean policy would ensure that activities occurring off our shores meet the basic requirements of protecting, maintaining, and restoring ocean ecosystems and resources. People may think such a policy already exists (just as many probably thought an adequate response plan for an oil well blowout existed), but it doesn’t.  Currently, more than 140 laws and 20 different agencies govern the human activities in our seas. Each agency comes with different goals and often conflicting mandates.  There is no overarching vision, policy or plan.

Over the past several weeks, NRDC has advocated several steps the government should take to address the Gulf oil spill disaster and make sure it never happens again – from a moratorium on new offshore oil and gas activities, at least until we figure out what happened in the Gulf and corrective action has been taken, to passing clean energy legislation and transitioning to energy sources that can’t spill or run out.

Now, as the oil continues to spill into the Gulf, I also can’t help but think of two ways we’d be better off if we had a national ocean policy in place.

1 – It would make sure agencies governing our seas are working together.

As this spill has shown, there’s not always communication among federal agencies. In a situation like this, a national ocean policy would provide an overarching goal to protect our oceans and unite these agencies around it. The President’s task force has recommended the creation of an interagency National Ocean Council to ensure that our government’s actions offshore are coordinated and working together for ocean protection – not at cross-purposes.

For instance, we’ve seen that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working to protect Gulf fisheries from deepwater plumes containing dispersed oil; at the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency has pre-approved the use of dispersants that can contribute to these deep water plumes. A national ocean policy would make sure the agencies are coordinating their efforts and discussing how to address critical ocean issues before they’re at a crisis point.

And, we’ve heard outrage that MMS was simultaneously advocating for expanded offshore oil drilling and tasked with making sure it was done safely. A national ocean policy would strengthen the mandate of agencies to care for ocean resources and require agencies’ coordinated action to that end.

In fact, whether it’s acidification, warmer temperatures or oil drilling – a national ocean policy would help us better protect our oceans and marine life and make them more resilient.

2 – It would protect sensitive places from the start.

Right now, we’re left with hoping that the powerful Loop Current doesn’t bring the oil’s devastation into the coral reefs of the Florida Keys – the third largest coral reef in the world – and then up the East Coast. A national ocean policy might have helped us avoid a disaster like this from the start, so we’re not left playing damage control.

The policy includes a comprehensive planning process that would help us identify important ecological areas, and allow the government to protect them, as well as to identify areas that would be suitable for safe and sustainable ocean use. A comprehensive planning process would provide for input from all levels of government, business interests, fisheries managers, conservation groups and the public and for consideration of the cumulative impact of activities on the health and functioning of marine ecosystems.

This World Ocean Day, we find ourselves in the midst of the worst ocean oil disaster in our nation’s history,  with our addiction to oil jeopardizing the vibrant and economically important marine life of America’s seas. We are being reminded daily of the often-forgotten value of these resources, and our responsibility to protect them. And we can see that a national ocean policy is needed, now more than ever. The President should act promptly to adopt such a policy.