National Oceans Policy Is About Streamlining

This blog was written by Dr. Amber Mace,  Associate Director, Policy Institute for Energy, Environment & The Economy, University of California, Davis. Prior to joining UC Davis, Dr. Mace served as assistant secretary for coastal matters at the California Natural Resources Agency.

Soon President Obama will release his final National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. With the “new normal” of increasingly costly natural disasters, there is growing recognition of the importance of how we value, manage, and protect our coastal and ocean resources so they can in turn help protect our coastal communities and increase the resilience of local economies. For both the US Gulf coast and New York, the ability of wetlands to absorb storm surge and reduce flooding should now be of obvious importance. With coastal watershed counties generating 58 percent of the US gross domestic product and housing 50 percent of the nation’s total population, this becomes an economic as well as a social imperative.

As with most new policies, there is confusion, concern and some bald political rhetoric about the intent and reach of the National Ocean Policy. While this policy clearly states a bold vision “To achieve an America whose stewardship ensures that the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes are healthy and resilient, safe and productive, and understood and treasured…”, it seeks to achieve the policy goals within the existing regulatory and legal framework and current fiscal realities of our time.  That’s right, read my lips, this policy contains no new regulations. If anything, it’s a roadmap to increase regulatory and management efficiencies through more effective coordination among the 20+ federal agencies that share a piece of the management pie.

The National Ocean Policy focuses on efforts to streamline regulatory and permit processes to facilitate management and use of our natural resources. Interestingly, some of the primary concerns about the policy come from some industry stakeholders who are fearful that it will lead to increases in bureaucracy and added layers of regulation that will slow down the permit process and tighten already restricted access to valuable natural resources, a process they already deem too slow.  Maybe it’s just a natural resistance to change and discomfort with the uncertainty associated with new policies, but the oil industry appears to be objecting to the policy on the grounds that it will do the opposite of its written intent to streamline. Alternatively, another concern expressed by some members of the environmental community is more consistent with the policy as written, which is that streamlining permit processes may accelerate access to, and extraction of, natural resources in ecosystems that are sensitive to disturbance.

A key goal to any new National Ocean Policy should be to ensure we can properly assess the near-term and long-term costs and benefits of resources extraction and ecosystem protection to effectively evaluate complex tradeoffs inherent in future permitting decisions.  For example, if we want a full assessment of these projects value to society, it is necessary to calculate the value of the ecological services from coastal and marine habitats relative to the value of resource extraction.  This includes the ecological function of habitats that may provide protection against extreme events. In some cases, coastal habitats may provide more value to society in the long run if they are intact.  My hope is that President Obama and the National Ocean Council will provide the leadership and the National Ocean Policy will provide the framework to tackle these complex issues and substantively improve ocean health for its intrinsic value and for our society’s health and economic well-being. As the science and acceptance of ecosystems valuation becomes more robust, it needs to be a critical part of the decision for federal oil and gas leasing planning and industry corporate investment portfolio management.