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January 2013 Issue

Collaboration Helps to Understand And Adapt to Ocean, Climate Changes

By Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.)
Co-Chair, U.S. House Oceans Caucus

The past year in Washington, D.C., was rife with infighting between the two political parties. On issue after issue, the opposing sides were unable to reach a compromise on meaningful legislation for the American people. This division was most noticeable when discussing the fate of our oceans.

The widening chasm between the two political parties resulted in divergent paths for ocean policy: one with President Barack Obama pushing the National Ocean Policy forward, and the other with U.S. House Republicans undermining those efforts with opposing votes and funding cuts.

Marine, Environmental Policy Regression
The 112th Congress was called the 'most anti-environmental Congress in history' in a report published by House Democrats and has been credited for undermining the major environmental legislation of the past 40 years. After the Tea Party landslide in the congressional elections of 2010, conservatives on Capitol Hill began to flex their muscles to roll back environmental protections.

Since taking power in January 2011, House Republicans held roughly 300 votes to undermine basic environmental protections that have existed for decades. To put that in perspective, that was almost one in every five votes held in Congress during the past two years. These were votes to allow additional oil and gas drilling in coastal waters, while simultaneously limiting the environmental review process for offshore drilling sites. There were repeal attempts to undermine the Clean Water Act and to roll back protections for threatened fish and other marine species. There were also attempts to block measures to address climate changes, ignoring the consequences of inaction, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification.

One of the bills, H.R. 3409, gutted the Clean Air and Water acts, stopped the implementation of new tailpipe emission standards and blocked the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to take any action to address climate change. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House along a largely party line vote in September. The Democrat-controlled Senate considered the bill dead upon arrival, and these measures were not enacted.

These undermining actions on marine policy were particularly effective in their use of the appropriations process to cut funding for research, education and governance programs. By underfunding government agencies, the ability of those agencies to enforce environmental regulations or update necessary infrastructure was severely limited. For instance, in the past two years, NOAA's funding has been cut by almost 14 percent in a time when funding should have been ramped up to understand and address increased climatic variability, and changes in our ocean chemistry and fisheries. NOAA was forced to do more with less, limiting its effectiveness.

But while the tide of sound ocean policy was retreating in Congress, it was rising on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The National Ocean Policy
Understanding the need for a federal policy to address the oceans after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama used an executive order in 2010 to create the National Ocean Policy. Modeled after the Oceans-21 legislation I championed in Congress, this order meant that the U.S. would have a comprehensive plan to guide our stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.

Despite push back from the House of Representatives, the president continued implementing his National Ocean Policy this past year through existing law, prioritizing ocean stewardship and promoting interagency collaboration to address the challenges facing our marine environment. For instance, the National Oceans Council created the www.data.gov/ocean portal, which went live just before the start of 2012 and has grown throughout the year to provide access to data and information about the oceans and coasts. The U.S. Geological Survey and other National Ocean Council agencies have been working with federal and state partners to identify the data sets needed by ocean users, such as fisheries and living marine resources data, elevation and shoreline information, and ocean observations.

Under collaborations provided through the National Ocean Council, federal and state agencies are now planning for comprehensive seafloor mapping and regional data-sharing networks, such as the Regional Data Framework on the West Coast. They have also begun to develop renewable energies, e.g., marine hydrokinetic, and are preparing to adapt to such problems as sea level rise and ocean acidification.

It is important to remember that these efforts rely on a robust ocean research infrastructure and a framework for information sharing. This becomes even more critical as federal funding shrinks, and federal and state governments are forced to collaborate more.

What Lies Ahead
In 2013, leaders in Washington must begin to repair the rifts created before the last election. If the partisan bickering that dominated the past two years continues, then the U.S. as a nation will suffer, and its oceans will feel the effects.

The next Congress will have an opportunity to reauthorize two pieces of legislation that underpin our ocean research infrastructure. The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act requires the development of a strategic plan for federal ocean acidification research and monitoring for assessing ocean acidification impacts on marine organisms and ecosystems, and the development of conservation strategies. The Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observing System Act establishes a national integrated system of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes observing systems, i.e., the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). These pieces of legislation are critical to understanding the challenges facing our waterways.

In confronting tough fiscal choices, the government must prioritize funding for programs that help us understand and adapt to changes in the marine environment, including sea level rise, increased freshwater flows into the ocean, acidification and biological changes impacting our nation's fisheries. Federal dollars are shrinking, but greater collaboration on these interconnected issues will amplify individual efforts.

The gains made in the last few years by the National Ocean Policy have been significant, but they are not permanent. In order to maintain those successes, we must codify them into permanent law. That will take the White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, working together to benefit the oceans.

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