Conservative Republicans warn that the administration is determined to expand its regulatory reach and curb the extraction of valuable energy resources, while many Democrats, and their environmentalist allies, argue that the policy will keep the ocean healthy and reduce conflicts over its use.
The wrangling threatens to overshadow a fundamental issue — the country’s patchwork approach to managing offshore waters. Twenty-seven federal agencies, representing interests as diverse as farmers and shippers, have some role in governing the oceans. Obama’s July 2010 executive order set up a National Ocean Council, based at the White House, that is designed to reconcile the competing interests of different agencies and ocean users.
The policy is already having an impact. The council, for example, is trying to broker a compromise among six federal agencies over the fate of defunct offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational fishermen want the rigs, which attract fish, to stay, but some operators of commercial fishing trawlers consider them a hazard and want them removed.
Still, activists invoking the ocean policy to press for federal limits on traditional maritime interests are having little success. The Center for Biological Diversity
cited the policy as a reason to slow the speed of vessels traveling through national marine sanctuaries off the California coast. Federal officials denied the petition.
During a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on ocean policy last year, the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), said that “opposing ocean planning is like opposing air traffic control: You can do it, but it will cause a mess or lead to dire consequences.”
Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), who is in a tight reelection race, retorted that the policy was “like air traffic control helping coordinate an air invasion on our freedoms.” An environmental group called Ocean Champions is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat him.
The sharp rhetoric puzzles academics such as Boston University biologist Les Kaufman. He contributed to a recent study that showed that using ocean zoning to help design wind farms in Massachusetts Bay could prevent more than $1 million in losses to local fishery and whale-watching operators while allowing wind producers to reap $10 billion in added profits by placing the turbines in the best locations. Massachusetts adopted its own ocean policy, which was introduced by Mitt Romney, the Republican governor at the time, and later embraced by his Democratic successor, Deval L. Patrick.
“The whole concept of national ocean policy is to maximize the benefit and minimize the damage. What’s not to love?” Kaufman said, adding that federal officials make decisions about offshore energy production, fisheries and shipping without proper coordination.