Obama Considers ‘Zoning the Oceans’

Published February 1, 2010

It is no secret that the Obama administration has been frustrated by Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive climate change legislation. The slow regulatory process, coupled with the failure in Copenhagen to reach an international accord with developing nations on CO2 emission limits, has left the administration looking for other options.

End Run Around Congress
Perhaps in anticipation of these difficulties, the administration has been quietly incorporating climate change considerations into a variety of policymaking decisions. In requiring industries to disclose financial risks related to global warming and assessing national security concerns from rising sea levels, the administration has made an end run around Congress to ensure climate change is part of the national agenda.

One of the more insidious endeavors to implement climate change regulations without congressional action has been the administration’s recent effort to regulate the ocean.

With very little fanfare, Obama quietly issued a memorandum last summer establishing an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force charged with developing recommendations for a national policy for our oceans and coasts and the Great Lakes. The President called for the task force specifically to consider issues such as climate change and ocean acidification when developing its recommendations.

Far-Reaching Consequences
Given that the memorandum received virtually no prior publicity, many industries are only now becoming aware of its sweeping scope and potential ramifications. A comprehensive national ocean policy will directly impact activities such as energy exploration and development; commercial and recreational fishing; merchant and cruise shipping; coastal and port development; transportation; marine and lake tourism; conservation; research; and many others.

Since the stated goal of the policy is, first and foremost, environmental protection—”protecting, maintaining, and restoring” our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes—it is a certainty the administration will prohibit any activities it deems harmful. Ultimately, this will allow the administration to decide which activities to prohibit and which to permit, which will give it a huge amount of power.

Critics thus deride this policy approach as “zoning the ocean.”

The consequences of making the Obama administration the final arbiter over activities on the oceans has not been lost on the oil and gas industry, which has substantial investments in offshore exploration activities. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, along with 69 other House members, sent a letter urging the administration not to infringe on the Department of the Interior’s jurisdictional purview over offshore leasing, noting the proposed policy “could deal a drastic blow to American jobs and our economy by restricting activities such as energy development and commercial fishing.”

Regulatory Creep
Even more disturbing is that the proposed national ocean policy would not be strictly limited to the oceans and Great Lakes. It could conceivably regulate land-based activities as well.

Consider, for example, a coastal-based manufacturer that emits CO2. If the administration were to determine those CO2 emissions were being deposited in the ocean and causing or contributing to acidification, theoretically it could shut down the business in the name of protecting the oceans.

Shortly after Obama issued his memorandum calling for the new ocean policy, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) solicited public comments and held stakeholder meetings with various industry sectors likely to be affected. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed comments in an attempt to draw attention to the proposed policy’s massive potential scope, in hopes that the CEQ would decide to recommend realistic limits to the scope, size, and complexity of the policy.

Unfortunately, when the second and final set of recommendations was issued on December 14, 2009, no real limits were included. As such, significant job losses and adverse economic impacts remain a distinct possibility.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Environment, Technology, and Regulatory Affairs Division.