Obama’s Ocean Policy Initiative: Washington’s latest power grab

Bonner Cohen Author, Fixing America’s Crumbling Underground Infrastructure
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As if the sputtering U.S. economy weren’t in enough trouble already, the Obama administration is cooking up a new scheme that will extend the heavy hand of Washington to somewhere it has never gone before.

Unveiled with precious little fanfare on July 19 in the form of an Executive Order, the White House’s Ocean Policy Initiative will subject America’s waterways — oceans, rivers, bays, estuaries, and the Great Lakes — to federal zoning.  Under the scheme, these areas would be managed according to the Orwellian-sounding notion of “coastal and marine spatial planning.”  As an unnamed administration official told the Los Angeles Times: “This sets the nation on a path of much more comprehensive planning to both conservation and sustainable use of [ocean] resources.”

An elaborate, multi-layered bureaucratic structure would oversee all of this. Nine regional commissions, composed of federal, state, and tribal officials, would decide which commercial and recreational activities are appropriate.  Their recommendations, however, would have to be approved by a newly created National Ocean Council, which the White House says will “strengthen ocean governance and coordination.”  The council will consist of spatial planners drawn from the likes of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA), and the departments of Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

State and local officials, hoping to have some input on zoning decisions affecting their jurisdictions, will soon find that the deck has been stacked against them.  To cite but one glaring example: Both the Commerce Department and NOAA are represented on the National Ocean Council.  But NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department.  The feds get two votes for the price of one.

As if on cue, NOAA dutifully rolled out its own “Next-Generation Strategic Plan” weeks in advance of Obama’s Executive Order. In language that would have done honor to the late Eastern Bloc’s most renowned central planners, NOAA proclaimed that, “Comprehensive planning will address competing uses to protect coastal communities and resources from the impacts of hazards and land-based pollution on vulnerable ecosystems.”

The scope of what the administration is putting together is no less ambitious than its healthcare and cap-and-trade initiatives. Industries — from agriculture, timber, and shipping to fishing, mining, and oil and gas — stand to be affected.  The inclusion of the Great Lakes in the plan signals the reach of the new policy.  Indeed, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River Valleys will be targeted every bit as much as coastal North Carolina or Alaska.

Federal departments and agencies included in the plan are directed to “take all such action as necessary to implement the policy set forth” in the Executive Order.  The EPA — far and away the nation’s most powerful regulatory agency — could, for example, determine that emissions from power plants are harming the oceans.  And if Congress fails to pass a cap-and-trade bill, the EPA could use the pretext of protecting the oceans to clamp down on greenhouse-gas emissions as another extra-legislative way to pursue the administration’s global-warming agenda.

A White House-directed Interagency Task Force on Ocean Policy spent over a year on the project, and the carefully selected officials made sure that the policy contains language that is loose, even by the standards of Washington bureaucrats.  Thus, human activities will be subjected to “ecosystem-based management.”  No one, however, can say where an ecosystem begins or ends in either time or space. What constitutes an “ecosystem” will be in the eyes of the beholders in Washington.

Furthermore, in determining whether shipping, commercial fishing, oil and natural gas drilling, or recreational boating will adversely affect a particular ecosystem, our newly anointed spatial planners are urged to take a “precautionary approach.”  Similarly, these activities are to be “sustainable.”  These slippery terms are an open invitation to regulatory mischief on a grand scale.

The president’s instruction to “take such action as necessary” will inevitably lead to a tidal wave of new regulations under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, or some other federal statute, all of which will have the force of law behind them.

What the administration in effect is putting in place is an alternative power structure that circumvents existing state and local decision-making bodies and replaces them with made-in-Washington zoning. All of this is taking place without the consent of Congress, without the consent of the governors, and, most important of all, without the consent of the governed.

The administration’s ocean policy will only drive more American companies to seek their fortunes overseas.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.