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January 2012 Issue

Insufficient Science Behind Obama's Plans To Restrict and Regulate Waters

By Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas)
Committee on Science, Space and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives

The oceans are filled with valuable resources that play a vital role in job creation, economic growth and energy security. However, a lack of consistency in ocean research over the decades has left significant gaps in our overall understanding of the ocean and how the U.S. can best utilize its resources.

Last summer, while most of the oceanic research community was focused on the challenges of ending the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and dealing with the aftermath, the Obama administration surreptitiously released its 100-page ocean strategy, titled 'Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.' This expansive management plan purports to be based on science; however, it is well known that in terms of science, the oceans are largely undiscovered. These far-reaching new policies that went into effect last summer represent a new direction for ocean use with very little focus on science. The policies also disregard the previous administration's oceans research initiative. I have several concerns with this new direction, particularly its focus on extensive federal zoning regulations and restrictions.

These new zoning laws will exclusively dictate how Americans interact with the ocean. Without congressional oversight or stakeholder scrutiny, the policy sets very specific regulations on waters up to 200 miles off the coast, devoting specific areas of the ocean for different activities. The concept of coastal and marine spatial planning is relatively simple. It is based on the idea that if one part of the ocean is specifically reserved for one purpose, like a marine sanctuary, other parts can be utilized for other activities, such as energy development or commercial fishing. However, more science and research is necessary in order to ensure that specific areas are set aside for appropriate reasons.

Arbitrarily zoning the ocean, without comprehensive scientific understanding of the impacts, is irresponsible. As it is, developers of offshore oil and gas resources must navigate a maze of federal and state regulations to ensure that any potential environmental effect of exploration or production is minimized or avoided. Adding another layer of bureaucratic uncertainty to this process, without sufficient scientific reason to do so, threatens to harm domestic energy production and hinder economic recovery. Furthermore, many in the recreational fishing industry have expressed serious concerns that this plan could potentially cripple their industry. For the first time, there will be top-down federal zoning, limiting the freedom of open waters and opening the door for excessive regulations.

Not only will this course of action impact coastal communities, but it will affect inland communities as well. The policy is very clear that urban and suburban development and land-based sources of pollutants will be subject to unelected regional planning boards. Any industry that could potentially affect the ocean, either directly or indirectly, will be impacted. Without the necessary scientific information, it is impossible for policymakers to determine which actions are harmful to ocean health and which are not.

Fortunately, there is already a research strategy ready and waiting to be implemented. In 2007, the Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology issued a report, 'Charting the Course for Ocean Science in the United States for the Next Decade.' The report outlines 20 research priorities needed to balance resource use and development with overall ecosystem health. Such priorities include developing a better understanding of resource abundance and distribution, human-use patterns that may influence resource stability, ecosystem resilience to natural and man-made hazards, interaction between marine operations and the environment, and sources of ocean-related risks to human health.

Information developed through these research directions is fundamental to any comprehensive ocean policy. Without it, the unintended consequences of zoning the ocean could be far worse than the problems the president's plan attempts to fix. Science cannot dictate policy, but it must be available to inform policy. The efforts of the previous administration demonstrate that the science is not sufficiently available to justify a top-down, one-size-fits-all national policy.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.