Obama's Ocean of Troubles

Published on
by
the San Francisco Chronicle

Obama's Ocean of Troubles

by
David Helvarg

Less than six months ago environmentalists were celebrating President Obama's commitment to our public seas as they went to work in support of his proposed National Ocean Policy.

Of course that was before the president endorsed offshore-oil drilling.

His call for expanded fossil-fuel development on the Outer Continental Shelf at the end of March came less than a month before the catastrophic explosion of a deepwater oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to BP. That April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster left 11 oil workers missing and presumed dead and 17 injured, then burned for two days before sinking in almost mile-deep water, setting off what turns out to be something like a 200,000-gallon-a-day oil leak that's quickly covered a large part of the gulf and is affecting the Louisiana coastline.

I've been on some of BP's deepwater platforms in the gulf and have written that this is where the next offshore disaster would probably occur. The history of the industry's claimed "safer drilling technologies" has always come about - to the degree it has at all - in the wake of rapid exploration and extraction in new frontier waters. These lessons keep getting learned in blood and oil, in large measure because there is little government oversight from the Department of Interior's Mineral Management Service, which issues the offshore permits.

Between its drilling decision and a proposal recently floated to reopen commercial whaling if Japan and other whaling nations agree to reduce the number of animals being killed under the rubric of "scientific whaling," it seems as if the Obama administration has been throwing harpoons into the very ocean policy the president proposed.

This new (really first) policy is a product of almost a year of public hearings and interagency planning designed to take a unified approach to managing our public seas, "putting urban planning in the water column," as Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen describes it.

Loosely based on the recommendations of two blue-ribbon ocean panels that reported in 2003 and 2004, the policy would replace the current dysfunctional system in which our public seas are overseen by 21 federal agencies operating under 140 laws. In their place, a White House Ocean Council would evaluate the role of varied ocean users and work to understand their cumulative impacts on the sea. From this understanding, ocean governance at the federal and regional levels would seek to coordinate the long-term uses of our coasts and ocean from coastal watersheds to the deep seas in ways that can ensure healthy and abundant waters.

The example I've been using of why this is needed is the Arctic Ocean, which, with loss of sea ice, is rapidly becoming our fifth blue-water coast. While the Department of Commerce (which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recently decided to ban fishing north of the Bering Strait until we better understand what's happening in this rapidly changing environment (with the full backing of Alaska's commercial fishermen), its sister agency the Department of Interior continues to issue oil lease permits in these same quarter-million square miles of endangered water. Who knew that the opposition to this new policy advocated by the president in June would come not from Republicans beholden to saltwater special interests but from Barack Obama's own actions?

Richmond, CA resident David Helvarg is an author and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His new book is "Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish" (St. Martin's Press, May 2010). 

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