Ocean Planning Is the Key to Unlock America’s New Blue Economy

The first wind turbine foundation jacket for the Block Island Wind Farm—the United States’ first commercial offshore wind facility—is seen offshore of Rhode Island in July 2015.

The thin coastal fringe of the United States comprises a tiny proportion of the nation’s total land area but supports a huge share of its business. Coastal and Great Lakes counties alone—just 10 percent of U.S. land area, excluding Alaska—generated more than 42 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2011. That share could become even larger if emerging technologies and enterprises take root and flourish. East Coast ports will soon need to handle substantially increased cargo volumes once the newly widened Panama Canal is open to behemoth post-Panamax container ships, allowing them to cross from Asian manufacturing hubs into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Meanwhile, the Northeastern Seaboard is just a few months away from launching America’s commercial offshore wind industry atop a base of wind resources that could ultimately yield gigawatts of emissions-free clean energy. And just as the science on coastal ecosystems has matured to the point at which it is evident the country cannot afford to lose another acre of these precious ecological assets, pressure to develop coastal counties continues to increase due to population growth that is outpacing the rest of the country.

All of these dynamics represent individual opportunities for economic growth and expanded, sustained employment for coastal communities. However, the reality of coast and ocean management has become a mind-numbing array of overlapping local, state, and federal agencies, each with jurisdiction over various slices of the offshore environment. These agencies are interspersed with a panoply of public and private stakeholders whose values and interests do not always align. Instead of creating opportunities for new investment and ecological restoration, the ocean policy paradigm has often turned federal waters into deadlocked legal battlefields and eroded trust among these parties.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 executive order—commonly known as the National Ocean Policy, or NOP—laid the groundwork for a new system of bottom-up coordination to help smooth this tangle of jurisdictions and interests and usher in a new Blue Economy for coastal states. By directing federal agencies to support and engage in regional ocean planning with groups of neighboring coastal states that choose to participate, the NOP imparts to these states increased influence in setting priorities for marine natural resource management throughout the U.S. federal waters of their region. This makes the array of authorities that comprise ocean governance more responsive to new economic opportunities along each region’s shores, while proactively addressing important public and environmental needs. Accordingly, the NOP warrants bipartisan support from lawmakers, not continued stealthy attacks in the form of legislative riders aimed at scoring political points.

Regional ocean planning through the National Ocean Policy

The regional ocean planning process established under the NOP is designed to let like-minded coastal states forge new economic vitality and resilience from the burgeoning diversity of ocean uses, technologies, and resource demands while ensuring that marine habitats are protected sufficiently to sustain the living resource base. The NOP empowers regions to facilitate permitting decisions and pre-empt user conflicts through two primary measures: the creation of a centralized, commonly shared, public portal for data on physical and biological oceanography and ocean uses within each U.S. region and the establishment of a dedicated forum for public, private, and governmental ocean stakeholders. This forum formalizes communication channels across state and federal agencies and among ocean user groups and industries. As Ted Diers, administrator for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services stated recently, “Ocean planning allows states to participate fully in federal decision making. It’s the ticket to the dance to participate in decision making outside the three-mile limit [of state maritime jurisdiction].”

Today, the states of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, which were first to form ocean planning regions under the NOP, are nearing the culmination of this process. On May 25, the Northeast Regional Planning Body will release its draft plan for public comment, and the Mid-Atlantic region will release its own draft plan this summer. These two documents, developed over several years by and for each region’s unique public and private maritime stakeholders, will translate the theoretical opportunities of ocean planning into concrete systems tailored to sustain existing economic activities while facilitating the establishment of new industries.

What might the implementation of these plans look like in practice? State-level processes provide some illustrative examples. Rhode Island’s ocean planning process for the coastal waters under state jurisdiction paved the way for permitting and construction of the United States’ first commercial offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm developed by Deepwater Wind LLC. This $290 million investment is on track to generate 300 jobs for the state and produce up to 30 megawatts of clean energy starting this fall. Similar to the regional ocean plans that will soon be released, Rhode Island’s process encompassed both spatial planning and stakeholder engagement and consultation, which resulted in crucial guidance and eventual support for the wind farm from the local commercial fishing industry. As Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski explained, “At the end of the day, we end up with a more robust project from our perspective because it has more community acceptance.”

Massachusetts implemented an analogous ocean plan following the passage of the Massachusetts Oceans Act of 2008, which ordered the state to institute a planning and data gathering effort for its waters. The first marine infrastructure project proposed after the state’s Ocean Management Plan came into effect was a cable-laying project between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, designed to enhance the island’s telecommunications and electric power reliability. Following completion in 2014, a case study on the project determined that the state’s ocean plan expedited permitting and cut 18 months of construction time. According to the developer’s environmental consultants, the state’s Ocean Management Plan was “very helpful because it defined the environmental constraints up front so we were able to take them into account early in the project design which made the design and permitting more efficient.”

Congress needs to let the National Ocean Policy work

Few could argue that efficient permitting and construction of new marine infrastructure is a bad thing, especially if that infrastructure generates clean energy, improves connectivity, and enhances electric power grid resilience with minimum conflict from public stakeholders and other ocean users. Yet even as federal agencies move forward with efforts to implement the NOP’s regional planning component and replicate the economic and environmental successes of Rhode Island and Massachusetts in federal waters, a small subset of congressional republicans continue to try to sabotage the process for little more than political points. For example, a rider on the current House energy and water appropriations bill would disallow any expenditures on NOP implementation; this would undermine the participation of several federal agencies with important roles in coast and ocean management, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Energy. According to an Ocean Conservancy tally, this is the 17th such rider to be introduced in the House of Representatives since 2012; all were introduced by just two House republicans, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL). As with the previous anti-NOP provisions, the current rider should be rejected on a bipartisan basis.

By stepping aside to let regional ocean planning work for states that want it—or, even better, actively supporting them—Congress would help usher in a new era of prosperity and sustainability along America’s coasts. It would also facilitate the deployment of new energy and information technologies that are essential for the nation’s future. As a diverse range of ocean stakeholders have testified, industry leaders, state officials, scientists, and environmentalists all want ocean planning, and the NOP is helping them implement it. The only government overreach that must be guarded against is congressional obstruction of ocean planning’s demonstrated success, which would preserve an obsolete maritime status quo.

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