National Endowment for the Ocean, Coasts, & Great Lakes Act

Note: As of mid-September, 2011, the EPW (Environment & Public Works) Committee passed the RESTORE Act – which includes funding to create a National Endowment for the Oceans. This is an important step towards getting the full Senate to vote on this bill. Please take a moment to show your support by visiting Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's website to learn more.

An encouraging sign of a new awareness and public awakening about the critical needs of the marine environment has been the recent introduction by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Me) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) of The National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts, and Great Lakes Act, designed to enhance America’s invaluable coastal and ocean resources through protection, research, and management.  According to Senator Snowe, “…our coastal communities and economy are inextricably linked to the ocean’s health and sustainability…the Act would help to fulfill our responsibility to preserve the vitality of the critical ecosystem it supports.”

The proposed legislation would create a funding process based on interest from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, 12.5 percent of revenues from offshore energy development (to include oil, gas, and renewable energy), and 10 percent of civil penalties for regulatory violations on the Continental Shelf.  Overhead is capped at 3%. The Endowment would be overseen by the Secretary of Commerce, more specifically by a seven person Council comprising additional representatives of other Federal agencies with over-lapping authority. Panels of experts and community representatives would advise.

Here is some specific language from the Act. Its purposes “are to protect, conserve, re-store, and understand the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes of the United States, ensuring present and future generations will benefit from the full range of ecological, economic, educational, social, cultural, nutritional, and recreational opportunities and services these resources are capable of providing.”

“Activities harming ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems jeopardize the economies and social structure of communities dependent on resources from such ecosystems.”

“The coastal regions of the United States have high biological productivity and contribute approximately 50 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States. The oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes are susceptible to change as a direct and indirect result of human activities, which can inhibit ecosystem integrity and productivity, biodiversity, environmental quality, national security, economic competitiveness, availability of energy, resistance to natural hazards, and transportation safety and efficiency.”

“A variety of human activities have caused dramatic declines in the health and productivity of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems of the United States, including chemical, nutrient, thermal, and biological pollution, including the introduction of invasive species, and the introduction of marine debris; unwise land use and coastal development; loss and degradation of habitat, including upstream freshwater habitat for anadromous, diadromous, and migratory fish species; overfishing and by-catch of non-target marine species; and global climate change and ocean acidification.”
These are strong, perhaps unexpected statements, grounded in reality, indicative of insightful legislative purpose, based on research and best practice.

The legislation would establish a grants program to fund projects to restore habitat, manage fisheries, plan for sustainable coastal development, acquire coastal properties for preservation, and relocate critical coastal infrastructure.  Applicants could include States, regional associations, non-governmental organizations, and research organizations.To be eligible, States would be required to provide an approved five-year coastal management plan and, in some cases, match Federal grant funds dollar for dollar.

This is a welcome step forward, and is the logical and practical follow-up to the nation’s new National Ocean Policy that was established by President Obama earlier this year.  Now, of course, comes the hard part, as the Act enters the troubled waters of the legislative process. – review by sub-committees, full committees, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and then the so-called reconciling, trading, compromising and diluting by opposing interests in what passes for governance these days.  Think of this initiative as one of those alewives or salmon that return home to inland places to spawn, avoiding all the dangers of the open ocean, surviving the hunters, the pollutants, and the dams.  Let’s hope this one makes it; we need this initiative badly if we are ever to deal successfully with the once and future ocean.

July 6, 2011