President Barack Obama has an ambitious plan for Washington bureaucrats to take command of the oceans—and with it control over much of the nation’s energy, fisheries, even recreation in a move described by lawmakers as the ultimate power grab to zone the seas.
The massive undertaking also includes control over key inland waterways and rivers that reach hundreds of miles upstream, and began with little fanfare when Obama signed an executive order in 2010 to protect the aquatic environment.
“This one to me could be the sleeping power grab that Americans will wake up to one day and wonder what the heck hit them,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R –Texas).
“This is pure administrative fiat,” said Sen. David Vitter (R –La.). “It’s very troubling.”
“This is purely a unilateral administrative action with no real congressional input or oversight,” Vitter said. “I think it clearly threatens to have a big impact on a lot of industry, starting with energy, oil and gas, and fishing.”
But in his zeal to curb sea sprawl, lawmakers say the president’s executive order also gives Washington officialdom unprecedented reach to control land use as well.
“The order says they shall develop a scheme for oversight of oceans and all the sources thereof,” Flores said. “So you could have a snowflake land on Pikes Peak and ultimately it’s going to wind up in the water, so as a result they could regulate on every square inch of U.S. soil.”
Impacts on industry, consumers
The effects of Obama’s far-reaching policy would be felt by numerous industries including wind farms and other renewable energy undertakings, ports, shipping vessels, and other marine commerce, and upstream it would also affect mining, timber, even farming.
It will impact consumers directly through rules addressing recreational uses such as fishing and boating, and restricting the multiple use development of the ocean’s resources would also increase the cost of fuel and food, lawmakers say.
The idea to create a policy to oversee multiple uses of the ocean originated during the Bush administration, but after push back from within the ranks, including Vitter, the idea was dropped.
Critics of this revised plan say it is more narrowly focused, and that the Obama administration is taking their marching orders from environmental groups who want to move away from a multiple-use ocean policy to a no-use policy.
“If you look at the catalyst for the entire initiative, it comes from the playbook of environmental groups that think the ocean ought to be controlled by the federal government,” Flores said.
Added Vitter: “This (Obama) administration is more aggressive and left-leaning, and they are going whole hog. I think it’s clearly a threat, and in terms of negatively impacting jobs, it’s a very, very big threat.”
Blocking new oil, gas production
The ocean policy has already impacted oil and gas development in the Mid and South Atlantic, where more environmental analysis is now required to determine whether new studies must also be conducted to determine its safety, according to Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar.
Jack Belcher, managing director of the Ocean Policy Coalition that represents numerous industries affected by Obama’s initiative including oil companies, says Salazar’s action is one example of how the administration is already blocking new production “on a policy that hasn’t even been developed yet.”
Still in its draft form, the plan released in January contains vague goals that call for more than 150 milestones to be accomplished by next year that will determine how the ecosystem is managed.
“Right now, we can only speculate on the impacts,” Belcher said. “But all of a sudden, there’s a new authority creating a new plan that may not allow oil and gas leasing or development in (some) areas.”
“But what we are worried about, and already seeing, is it’s being used as a tool to say we’re not going to do something, or delay it,” Belcher said. “It creates another layer of bureaucracy and another opportunity for litigation. We see this as an opportunity to tie things up in complete uncertainty.”
Belcher said his members are not opposed to having a process in place to manage all of the industries that depend on the ocean, but that they are already operating under numerous and sometimes onerous regulations that guide energy development, the shipping of goods, wind farm construction, and commercial fishing.
“It isn’t just chaos on the high seas, but this ocean policy takes the assumption that it is,” Belcher said. “We’re fearful that (Obama’s policy) will result in a more draconian system.”
The regulatory uncertainty created by the draft plan for industries and its employees that depend on the ocean has prompted numerous Republican senators to ask for congressional oversight hearings.
“In these tough economic times, it would be unfortunate if Congress chose to ignore responsibility for limiting bureaucratic hurdles to prosperity,” the lawmakers said in a March 20 letter. The letter was signed by Sens. Vitter, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Cornyn of Texas.
The ocean policy has been a sleeper issue with very little media coverage, but now that it is starting to affect industries such as gas and oil production, lawmakers say congressional hearings are needed to take a broader look at its impact and consider public input from all of the stakeholders, not just environmentalists.
“This has largely been completely under the radar,” Vitter said. “And that is exactly the way the administration and their environmental allies want to do it—announce the administrative fiat is complete and that we have this new way of life that nobody knew was coming.”
House Republicans are fighting back by tightening the purse strings they control and hope that by cutting off funding to implement the policy, and putting a stop to officials they believe are siphoning money away from other programs, they can block it from going forward.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R -Ky.), who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been asked to put a stop to the administration’s “cloaked funding” by Rep. Doc Hastings (R–Wash.), chairman of the House Resources Committee.
“The Obama administration continues to move forward with zoning the oceans through implementation of the president’s National Ocean Policy without requesting funding specifically for this broad initiative and without answering basic questions about how funds are currently being diverted from other missions to fund this initiative,” Hastings said in an April 2 letter to Rogers.
Although critics of the plan say it will create an unprecedented aquatic zoning commission, the administration has repeatedly denied it.
Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and co-chair of the newly created National Ocean Council in charge of the new policy, said the plan “has been mischaracterized as ‘ocean zoning.’”
“The National Ocean Policy does not create any new regulations,” added Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere. “It is a planning process, it’s not zoning.”
Calls to CEQ, which oversees the policy, were not returned.
However, critics point to an Interior Department memo that says the plan “has emerged as a new paradigm and planning strategy for coordinating all marine and coastal activities and facility constructions within the context of a national zoning plan.”
Additionally, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, a member of the Ocean Policy Task Force, told OnEarth Magazine in May, 2010, the plan is “basically taking the notion of urban planning and putting it into the water column, as well as the estuary systems that connect it to everything that impacts ocean ecosystems.”
Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska) explained the new bureaucracy to his constituents during an April 3 Alaska field hearing as “a complicated bureaucratic scheme which includes a 27-member national ocean council; an 18-member governance coordinating committee; 10 national policies; nine regional planning bodies—each involving as many as 27 federal agencies as well as states and tribes; nine national priority objectives; nine strategic action plans; seven national goals for coastal marine spatial planning; and 12 guiding principles for coastal marine spatial planning.”
“Are you confused yet?” Young asked the crowd.
“The administration claims that this whole National Ocean Policy is nothing more than an attempt to coordinate federal agencies and make better permitting decisions,” Young said. “Forgive me if I am a little suspicious when the federal government—through an executive order—decides to create a new bureaucracy that will ‘help’ us plan where activities can or cannot take place in our waters and inland.”
Environmental groups that support the president’s efforts include the Pew Charitable Trusts, which says that the fragile health of the oceans is being threatened by the increasing industrialization of the seas.
“If poorly planned or managed, drilling for oil and natural gas in federal waters, developing aquaculture and building wind, wave and tidal energy facilities all have the potential to damage America’s marine environment,” Pew said in a statement supporting the president’s policy.
But some believe bureaucratic interference on such a large scale is the real threat.
“The last thing we need is the federal government running the damn ocean and a bunch of bureaucrats running around trying to determine whether you can fish in one spot or another,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research.