A Good Plan: Supporting the National Ocean Policy Ensures the Prosperity of Coastal Economies

This photo shows the windcarrier vessel Bold Tern, contracted to build Rhode Island's Block Island offshore wind energy facility beginning in summer 2015.

What do lobstermen, subsea cable installers, offshore wind developers, port operators, and marine scientists have in common? Brought together by their sea-bound livelihoods, representatives from this diverse cross section of coastal industries are visiting with members of Congress and the Obama administration tomorrow to endorse and defend the remarkable progress made in recent years to ensure the future prosperity of their ocean-dependent businesses.

These ocean stakeholders see their futures tied to the concept of ocean planning, a process in which they are guaranteed a seat at the table when local, regional, and federal government agencies make management decisions about ocean resources and public access. Some coastal states—such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, and Oregon—have raced to the lead in implementing ocean planning and are already reaping economic benefits. In 2010, President Barack Obama, through an executive order commonly known as the National Ocean Policy, directed the array of federal agencies with partial ocean jurisdiction to manage marine resources and spaces in a more coordinated fashion that supports the priorities and ocean planning efforts led by coastal states.

The National Ocean Policy, or NOP, is neither a regulation nor a new federal program. In fact, it originated from a bipartisan commission convened by former President George W. Bush. However, some members of Congress have launched misguided legislative attacks on the NOP and ocean planning that seem to be based more on politics than on economic reality. Tomorrow, members of Congress should listen closely to the success stories of these hardworking ocean stakeholders and reject legislative riders that sacrifice the important progress being made on ocean planning for political points.

What is ocean planning, and who benefits from it?

While “ocean planning” may sound abstract, the process has real, tangible impacts for maintaining traditional marine sectors such as shipping and commercial fishing, the viability of important new coastal industries, and the environmental health of the oceans on which many of these businesses depend. At stake: Billions of dollars of private-sector revenue and millions of coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes jobs.

Consider a recent example. On May 8, 2014, Deepwater Wind LLC received its first state permits for the firm’s 30-megawatt offshore wind energy project to be built off Block Island, Rhode Island. By September 5, the project received the full complement of federal permits, including approval from 11 different agencies, and began to hire subcontractors. In January 2015, its wind turbine supplier completed fabrication of the 15 241-foot-long blades needed for the project’s five immense wind turbines, each capable of supplying clean electricity for around 5,000 households. According to Deepwater’s CEO Jeffrey Grybowski, construction will begin this spring and will be complete before 2017, making it the United States’ first commercial offshore wind energy project.

This example makes offshore wind energy development sound deceptively easy and unencumbered by opposition. Yet consider the very different path of what was once the front-running offshore renewable energy project: Cape Wind, just a short journey to the northeast of Block Island, off Massachusetts. Cape Wind’s developer has been relentlessly beset by more than 32 lawsuits from opponents ranging from the Wampanoag Indian tribe to the deep-pocketed fossil-fuel magnate William Koch, resulting in more than 13 years of delay and a requirement to complete its costly federal environmental impact analysis twice. With unresolved litigation still pending, the controversial project missed a crucial construction deadline in January, resulting in the loss of the power purchase agreements with regional utilities that underpin its financing. As a result, Cape Wind’s future is now very much in doubt, and if the project is ultimately sunk, the developer’s losses could exceed the $50 million spent so far on siting, permitting, and litigation.

How could two projects nearly next door to each other meet such starkly different fates? The key is Rhode Island’s recent work in ocean planning. Through this process, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council and the University of Rhode Island spearheaded the comprehensive mapping of existing ocean uses such as commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and shipping; environmentally sensitive marine areas; and offshore wind resources. Critically, the mapping process engaged a wide range of stakeholders to identify and resolve conflicts before they played out in specific permitting processes. The result, known as the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, provided Deepwater Wind the certainty and regulatory coherence that it needed to move forward expeditiously, and relatively free of conflict, with its $300 million Block Island project. In fact, the company’s success in navigating the regulatory process has led it to turn its sights to a second project of even greater ambition—the $1 billion, 1,000-megawatt Deepwater ONE proposal slated to commence production in federal waters off Rhode Island in 2018.

As coastal populations continue to climb and resource demands evolve, promising new ocean industries, such as wind power and marine aquaculture, will seek to capitalize on offshore opportunities alongside important traditional endeavors such as fishing, marine construction, conservation, and shipping. Consequently, coastal communities and businesses increasingly view ocean planning as indispensable to preserving public access to the ocean, sustaining economic growth, and maximizing the productivity and health of marine resources.

Letting good policy work for coastal states

The National Ocean Policy is designed to support and expand these state-driven efforts. As an executive order, the NOP is neither a regulation nor a new federal program. However, some members of Congress, displeased with President Obama on other issues, have attempted to brand the NOP and ocean planning as efforts to stifle economic activity, expand federal bureaucracy, and even restrict fishing. For example, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), who represents a landlocked district—one devoid of coastline but apparently rich in irony—has even tried to derail ocean planning through amendments that add burdensome budgetary requirements to important agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, to prevent them from participating in interagency cooperation.

These misleading, counterproductive attacks fail to hold up for several reasons. First, the diversity of private-sector businesses that support the NOP, such as the fishermen and port operators visiting Capitol Hill tomorrow, show that ocean planning makes economic sense for coastal communities. Second, outcomes such as the permitting of the Block Island wind farm demonstrate that ocean planning mobilizes private-sector investment, rather than impeding it. Third, the NOP expressly empowers coastal states disinterested in ocean planning to opt out if they prefer not to participate. Finally, federal ocean agencies must execute their statutorily required duties, whether in arbitrary bureaucratic silos or in collaboration with their governmental counterparts. By doing so within the coordinated process established by the NOP, management decisions can be made more efficiently thanks to the formalization of interagency cooperation—and can be made better thanks to a systematized process for consultation with local ocean stakeholders.

Members of Congress can support American coastal economies and the stewardship of the country’s oceans and Great Lakes by rejecting legislative riders that undermine the smart governance of ocean planning for political points. Instead, as tomorrow’s visit to Capitol Hill by diverse ocean-dependent businessmen and businesswomen demonstrates, supporting the National Ocean Policy will help deliver a more prosperous, more sustainable future for America’s coastal states.

Shiva Polefka is a Policy Analyst for the Center for American Progress’ Ocean Policy program.