2016 and 2017 will be remembered as contrasting years in the context of America’s political approach to protecting the ocean. This idea is studied in depth in the book Blue Frontier – Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness.
In his final year in office, President Obama seemed to become a born-again Hawaiian waterman, snorkeling through the coral shallows of Midway Island while also speaking out on the true value of our living seas. Attempting to open up parts of the Atlantic seaboard and U.S. Arctic Ocean to offshore oil drilling, he reversed course in December 2016 and put much of the area off-limits to any new oil and gas leasing. He did much more, however, throughout his presidency.
In 2010, in the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he signed an executive order establishing a National Ocean Policy (NOP) to coordinate oversight of ocean uses between federal agencies and state and tribal governments.
An often cited example of planning is the Coast Guard’s decision to move the shipping lanes into Boston Harbor to avoid an area where endangered right whales feed. What the Coast Guard didn’t realize at the time was that the new shipping lanes they created were now overlapping an area where another federal agency issued permits for an offshore liquid natural gas facility, a telling example of the confusion in trying to understand and coordinate who’s doing what, where, and when offshore.
In June 2006, President George W. Bush established the 131,000 square mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, an extension of tiny atolls and vast coral gardens that stretch for 1,200 miles from the main islands to Midway. In August of 2016, President Obama expanded Papahanaumokuakea to more than half a million square miles (twice the size of Bush’s home state of Texas), making it the largest environmentally protected wilderness area on Earth. It’s also home to over 70 percent of U.S. coral reefs and rare and endangered animals like green sea turtles, tiger sharks, monk seals and nesting albatrosses. Then, in September, Obama announced the east coast’s first marine monument, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off of New England.
Around the same time, several National Marine Sanctuaries in California were expanded, a process that ended up protecting one-third of the California coast from offshore drilling. In addition to these actions, President Obama signed a bipartisan bill into law that targeted IUU (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated) fishing, allowing for greater international cooperation in stopping global fish piracy and related crimes such as the use of slave crews on board the vessels. He also rebuilt the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of its awful failure during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, recognizing that we’d need a strong lead agency in the face of future disasters like this year’s monster hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
In his earliest days in office, President Trump seemingly set out to reverse President Obama’s legacy on everything from health care to voter rights, climate, and ocean policy.
In the candidate’s campaign, he dismissed climate change science as a hoax and “bullshit,” calling for expanded offshore oil drilling. Once in office, he named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency – another climate change denier. Pruitt’s targeting of air and water pollution regulations and enforcement threatened to increase the polluted runoff generating massive offshore dead zones like the nine-month algal bloom of “green slime” caused by agricultural nitrogen and phosphate pollution that coated large sections of Florida’s seashore in 2016.
In April 2017 Trump issued his “America First Offshore Energy Executive Order,” opening millions of acres of federal waters to oil and gas leasing. The legality of these potential actions assured a court fight following an abbreviated public comment period that drew 850,000 comments on ocean monuments and sanctuaries. Initial surveys show 99 percent of the comments favor protecting these waters.
Then in June, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. None of the other 194 nations that had signed onto the agreement to reduce climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions followed his lead. When he explained he was more interested in protecting the people of Pittsburgh than the people of Paris, both the mayors of Pittsburgh and Paris issued a joint statement saying they supported climate action and job-generating clean energy development.
Ironically, studies indicate that Trump’s favorite mansion and “Winter White House” in Palm Beach is at risk of losing 25 percent of its land in the coming decades under even moderate sea level rise caused by fossil-fuel fired climate disruption. Also at risk would be one of his Secretary of Commerce Billionaire Wilbur Ross’s estates two miles up the road. Luckily for them, Palm Beach has already invested $150 million in pumps just as Miami Beach is investing $400 million to raise its sidewalks and install water pumps to deal with their “Sunny Day Flooding.”
As if 2016-2017 has not seen enough of a change in U.S. ocean policy under Trump, his Offshore Energy order also called for a review of the only safety rules to come into effect after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, governing the mechanics of blowout preventers, drilling bores, workplace safety protocols and other systems whose failure led to the death of 11 workers and the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
So if the next hurricane doesn’t take out your favorite beach, maybe the next wave of oil drilling and spills will.