Draft U.S. Ocean Policy Plan Precedes Proposal to Move NOAA to Interior Department (From the American Geophysical Union)
The Obama administration’s ambitious plan to protect oceans was released on 12 January, just 1 day prior to the administra-tion’s apparently unrelated announcement of a proposed governmental reorganization that would move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Department of Commerce to the Depart-ment of the Interior. The proposed NOAA move is part of a larger administration pro-posal to consolidate six federal agencies that are focused on business and trade into one department. The action is contingent upon congressional approval.
The proposal to move NOAA to the Inte-rior department has prompted a variety of reactions, with some considering it common sense to group agencies dealing with natu-ral resources in the same department. Oth-ers have charged that the proposed move could blunt NOAA’s leading role in protect-ing oceans, among other concerns.
The draft National Ocean Policy Imple-mentation Plan, issued by the White House’s National Ocean Council, provides a frame-work for more than 2 dozen federal agen-cies and offices involved with oceans to work together on a plan to implement the National Ocean Policy. President Barack Obama established that policy—formally known as the National Policy for the Stew-ardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes—through a 19 July 2010 execu-tive order. An earlier 2004 report by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy had received bipartisan support.
The draft plan, which lays out nine pri-ority objectives along with more than 50 action items and nearly 300 significant milestones with timetables, has a strong focus on science and the need for increased observations. The objectives include adopt-ing ecosystem-based management “as a foundational principle” for ocean manage-ment. For the objective on informing deci-sions and increasing understanding to improve management and policy decisions, action items include advancing fundamen-tal scientific knowledge through exploration and research, and providing data and tools to support science-based decision making and ecosystem-based management.
Among the action items for an objective on observations, mapping, and infrastruc-ture are improving remote sensing systems and further implementing the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). Other objectives call for improved coordination and support for ocean management issues, establishing and implementing an integrated ecosystem protection and restoration strat-egy, strengthening resiliency and adaptation to climate change and ocean acidification, enhancing water quality and implementing sustainable practices on land, addressing environmental stewardship needs in the Arc-tic Ocean, and implementing comprehen-sive coastal and marine spatial planning and management.
The draft plan notes that it creates no new regulations, attempts to leverage existing federal agency resources, and was prepared in light of expected federal budgets for the next several years.
“For the first time in the history of this country, we have a national policy that per-tains to the 70% of the planet that we call the oceans. We never had that before,” Jerry Miller, assistant director for ocean sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), told Eos. Miller said that while the National Ocean Council has a long-term vision for managing oceans, “this document is intended to be the sort of boots on the ground, [to] get on with busi-ness in the foreseeable future here in a real-istic fashion with budget levels that we can reasonably expect.”
Both Miller and Steve Fetter, who oversees OSTP’s environment and energy division, said the concept of science-based decision making and having the necessary data are fundamental to the plan. Fetter told Eos that the main message in the plan is “the com-mitment to using the best available scientific information and analysis to inform all of our policies and programs regarding the oceans and the coasts.” Fetter added that “every-thing else [in the plan] is in support of that.”
Reaction to the Draft Implementation Plan
The draft plan has received a generally favorable response. Former NOAA admin-istrator Conrad Lautenbacher told Eos that he is pleased to see the release of the draft plan and “look[s] forward even more to the application of resources to the goals out-lined. In particular, the importance of an Earth observing system stands out as a pre-requisite to realize just about every part of the plan.” Lautenbacher said he supports additional resources for fulfilling IOOS goals as a critical system within the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.
Margaret Leinen, chair of the Ocean Research Advisory Panel, which provides guidance to the U.S. government about ocean research, told Eos the plan “is impor-tant because it will provide both guidance and prioritization to all federal agencies and programs that are involved with ocean affairs. For the research community, this plan is intended to provide clear guidance on the types of research most needed by the federal government.”
Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) at the University of Maryland, Col-lege Park, cited as the most important aspects of the report a call for coordina-tion among agencies focused on oceans, a regional approach to implementing poli-cies that recognizes that “one size doesn’t fit all,” and a recognition of the importance of observations for research and for opera-tional needs.
Environmental groups applauded the plan. Jeff Watters, senior manager of govern-ment relations with the Ocean Conservancy, told Eos that although he “would clearly love to see more federal dollars going toward ocean conservation issues,” he recognizes that the purpose of this particular plan is not to be a giant conservation wish list. “This [plan] is about management of the agencies and management of resources,” he said, “to make sure we are going about ocean man-agement and ocean research in a smart and targeted way that is frankly more effective and more efficient.”
Staci Lewis, senior policy manager with the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, said she is looking for the final plan to strike a balance between tight budgetary times and proceed-ing with a number of key action items. “Hope-fully, they are able to translate these [plan] milestones into tangible results while keeping the budgetary issues in mind,” she said.
Support for the draft plan was not uni-versal, however. National Ocean Industries Association president Randall Luthi said in a statement that “the use of Coastal Marine Spatial Planning may very well be a multilay-ered bureaucratic solution seeking a prob-lem that doesn’t exist. Our industry has been successfully operating for decades, with-out major conflict, guided by the planning already inherent in the 5-year offshore leas-ing process mandated under the Outer Con-tinental Shelf Lands Act.” U.S. Rep. Doc Hast-ings (R-Wash.) charged that the plan would help the administration move forward with “imposing new mandatory ‘ocean zoning.’” Hastings said the plan “isn’t about protecting the ocean; it’s about expanding power and government control over Americans’ lives.”
Hastings’s comments “reflect politics at its rawest,” said Morgan Gopnik, former senior advisor to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. She said Hastings’s charges about expanding power and government con-trol are neither accurate nor relevant to the plan. “There is nothing radical about these proposals; they are common sense. The new policy will make ocean management more efficient and less
[Washington] D.C.-centric, with lots of input from state, local, and tribal authorities.” Miller at OSTP added that coastal and marine spatial planning “is not ocean zoning, it’s ocean planning” that
brings together a broad spectrum of stake-holders in a collaborative planning process.
NOAA’s Proposed Move
During a 13 January briefing, Jeff Zients of the White House Office of Management and Budget said that all of NOAA would be moved to the Interior department under the administration proposal. “As part of the spe-cific proposal that would be developed once we have consolidation authority, the appro-priate integration of NOAA into the Inte-rior department would be carefully worked through.”
Sarah Chasis, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Ocean Initia-tive, said the proposed move for NOAA was “a side issue” in the proposed reorganiza-tion, with the principal focus being on busi-ness and trade agencies. Chasis told Eos that while the draft implementation plan is a pos-itive and important step forward for ocean stewardship, the proposal to move NOAA to Interior is troubling. She said NOAA cur-rently plays an important role in checks and balances with Interior, which has respon-sibility for extractive offshore oil and gas activities. “Making sure that [NOAA is] free to weigh in in a way that’s not squelched or unduly influenced by the extraction goals of [Interior] is really important,” she said, add-ing, “We need to focus on implementing the National Ocean Policy plan. There are so many important things to be done, and reor-ganization takes a lot of time and effort and diverts from policy and implementation.”
Jeb Berman, director of government rela-tions with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said NOAA was “blindsided” by the reorganization announcement and had not been informed about it until the prior evening. Berman told Eos that moving the entire agency to Interior “creates so much bureaucratic headache and would require NOAA to take its eye off the ball for a sig-nificant period of time. And even though they’ve fixed some of the oil/gas problems recently at [Interior], it’s still the agency that’s directed to lease expeditiously.” He added, “Now, if some pieces of NOAA were integrated into existing resource manage-ment functions at [Interior], that could potentially make sense.”
Busalacchi of ESSIC said he is withhold-ing judgment for now regarding the pro-posed move. “On the plus side in terms of management of ecosystems, it seems to make sense. Similarly with climate ser-vices, over the past 1.5 years NOAA and [Interior] have had many discussions regarding interagency coordination per-taining to climate, impacts, information, and services. However, when it comes to the operational prediction and obser-vation components of NOAA, it would appear these represent significant new mandates for [Interior].”
Former NOAA administrator Lauten-bacher commented, “I think it is premature to assume that NOAA will be transferred to Interior. There are certainly other options which many have proposed over the years. The president’s announcement on Friday asks Congress to reinstate presidential authority to make organizational changes within the executive branch, an author-ity which ended in the Reagan era. The example of how such authority might be used centered on the consolidation of six current disparate organizations that affect trade and the economy. I certainly agree that bringing together these various struc-tures would be a logical and useful under-taking. And I do believe that streamlining executive branch organizational structure, if done properly, could be highly advanta-geous to improving the efficiency and effec-tiveness of government.”
He added, though, “At this point, it is pure speculation as to what the effect would be on the current Commerce department lineup and, in particular, NOAA. I do continue to support strongly the enactment of an organic act for NOAA no matter what hap-pens in the future. As to the proper home for NOAA in a future government reorgani-zation, I would have to see the details and overall context of the change before I could make a determination as to [its] value and my support for such a change. Remember, there is a long way to go before any of this potential reorganization activity can even begin to be formulated and seriously pro-posed, let alone actually happening.”
Miller of OSTP noted, “We don’t antici-pate any impact [from the proposed NOAA move] on the implementation plan.” As Eos went to press, NOAA had not made any pub-lic comments regarding the proposed reor-ganization, despite attempts by Eos to solicit agency comments.
For more information about the draft National Ocean Policy Implementa-tion Plan, see http://www.whitehouse .gov/administration/eop/oceans/ implementationplan. The public comment period is open through 27 February 2012.
—Randy ShowStack, Staff Writer
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