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January 2011 Issue

The Value of Healthy Oceans (and the Role of Congress)

By Rep. Bart Gordon
Tennessee (D)
Outgoing Chairman
House Committee on Science and Technology
For the past four years, I have served as chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, a position I vacated this month after deciding to retire. In my time on this committee, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the key role that oceans play in the health of our environment and economy. More than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, and the ocean is a major hub of economic activity. Capture fisheries, aquaculture, renewable and traditional energy industries, tourism, recreation, shipping and transportation are major sources of revenue to the U.S. economy. That said, our ocean and coastal resources are undervalued and often overlooked; such perceptions need to change in order to protect, maintain and enhance these resources for current and future generations.

Ocean Acidification
Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is necessary to protect ocean resources and our economy. The rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions has resulted in the acidification of our oceans, impairing the ability of marine organisms, such as shellfish and coral, to form shells and skeletons. This potential loss at the bottom of the food chain poses a significant threat to marine ecosystems and the people depending on them. The Committee on Science and Technology has examined this issue in multiple hearings and through legislation, and I am encouraged that President Barack Obama has increased NOAA's research funding in this area. I hope future Congresses continue to focus on this issue.

Renewable Energy, Offshore Drilling
If the solution to CO2 emissions lies in the development of clean energy technologies, oceans will be a major part of the solution. The Committee on Science and Technology introduced in September a bill to advance the potential of marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy technologies to provide clean energy from ocean currents, waves and thermal gradients. The bill would provide $800 million over five years for research and demonstration of new marine energy technologies and testing facilities. Additionally, the bill would establish an environmental grant program to identify, assess and find ways to avoid and minimize environmental impacts potentially arising from these new energy technologies.

Some marine energy projects are already underway. The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy was authorized in the Committee on Science and Technology's landmark legislation, the America COMPETES Act. This new agency within the Department of Energy pursues high-risk, high-reward energy technology development, including transformational energy research projects such as advanced biofuels from seaweed and next-generation offshore wind technologies. Clean-energy technologies will benefit ocean health, the economy and our nation's scientific and economic competitiveness.

Petroleum is a major component of our energy portfolio; therefore, we should pursue more efficient uses of petroleum and safer extraction methods to protect the marine environment. In July, the House of Representatives passed two bills to prevent and respond to future oil spills. The Safer Oil and Natural Gas Drilling Technology Research and Development Act has the potential to make oil and gas drilling safer by supporting technology research and development as well as best practices for worker and environmental safety. The Oil Pollution Research and Development Reauthorization Act provides for the ongoing development of more effective prevention and response technologies. During the Deepwater Horizon spill, we were reliant on the same, ineffective cleanup technologies used more than two decades ago to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill. More research is needed to create effective oil spill cleanup technologies.

Climate Engineering and Other Issues
A number of other science policy items have been important to me during my time in Congress: climate engineering, the NOAA climate service, harmful algal blooms research and response, and providing a statutory foundation for NOAA.

Climate change will impact many sectors across the U.S. economy. NOAA collects a wealth of climate data, but an interagency climate service is needed to translate such data into solutions that individuals and businesses can use to adapt and respond to such changes. The Committee on Science and Technology passed in 2009 an act that would have created such a climate service, and I hope that a future Congress will successfully pass legislation that would create something similar to take full advantage of the data NOAA provides.

I am fully committed to reducing our carbon emissions. However, our best efforts may not be enough to prevent us from reaching an environmental tipping point. We will need to know what our options are and whether those options include climate engineering, which can be described as the deliberate large-scale modification of Earth's climate system for the purposes of counteracting or mitigating climate change. The Science and Technology Committee initiated an open and deliberate discussion regarding climate engineering with a series of congressional hearings and the report, 'Engineering the Climate: Research Needs and Strategies for International Coordination.' Understanding the full range of these climate engineering options—and, most importantly, their potential side effects—will require intensive research.

One outcome of climate change is the growing frequency and duration of harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. Such events negatively impact tourism and the economy by making seafood and beaches unsafe. In March, the House of Representatives passed the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2010. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who was then chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, requires an interagency task force to create a national program to address and reduce marine and freshwater harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.

Another piece of legislation I have worked on attempting to pass is the NOAA Organic Act, which would provide NOAA with a statutory basis to exist and to conduct its activities and missions. In light of the increasing consequences of climate change, I am grateful that we have an agency dedicated to preserving our oceans. NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment and to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet U.S. economic, social and environmental needs. Their products and services support the economy and affect more than one-third of America's gross domestic product. An organic act would strengthen the agency and help ensure that its structure is consistent with its primary missions. I hope that a future Congress will codify NOAA's authorities and responsibilities to ensure that the agency will continue to support vital atmospheric and ocean research.

The value of the oceans, particularly healthy oceans, to our economy and culture is often overlooked. A dramatic change in these perceptions is needed for the good of our communities, economies and ecosystems. Climate change, ocean acidification and other threats to marine systems and industries cannot be mitigated by legislation alone. Solutions will be found in the collective efforts of every American; in local, state and federal policies; and in the private sector and academia. Actions need to be taken now to maintain and improve our marine environment for future generations.

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