Trump’s War on Oceans

An orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker in Washington state, July 2015.

This column contains a correction.

In 2008, when President George W. Bush issued the traditional proclamation declaring June to be National Ocean Month, it was peppered with platitudes about America’s “precious waters” and included a shoutout to the newly minted Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument he had established two years earlier.

The proclamation President Donald J. Trump issued on May 31 of this year—as Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale pointed out on Twitter—took rather a different tone. Trump’s language kicks off by mentioning the “mighty oceans and their extraordinary resources.” It then bemoans how “underutilized” these resources are and how much more money the ocean could generate from energy extraction and increased fisheries production.

For decades, if not longer, ocean protection has been a bipartisan priority. Much of this harmony has been driven by recognition that healthy oceans are a huge economic driver. From recreation and tourism to commercial fishing, healthy oceans and sustainable resources are massive money-makers for seaside states, cities, and towns. Both protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems provide huge financial payouts. For example, a 2014 Center for American Progress study found that every dollar invested by taxpayers in coastal restoration projects returned $15 in net economic benefits.

But now, President Trump is shifting that dynamic and driving a wedge into a heretofore harmonious policy arena. Here are five specific decisions that add up to a declaration of war by the current administration on healthy oceans and coasts:

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

President Trump has based his decision to reject the Paris Agreement on the false claim that its voluntary targets are somehow too onerous to swallow. In reality, this decision is both immoral and irrational. The implications of failing to act on climate change are already acutely felt in the world’s oceans.

Accelerating sea level rise will affect coastal communities around the globe—whether or not the administration continues suppressing statements of fact about the link between increased coastal flooding and our changing climate. Ocean acidification will continue to make life harder for oyster farmers in the Puget Sound and in estuarine areas on both coasts. And warming waters will continue to cause fish stocks to migrate into higher latitudes in search of colder water, putting at risk America’s commercial fishing industry and the very fabric of our coastal communities. Thus, President Trump’s fruitless yet highly touted effort to save roughly 75,000 coal jobs will inevitably result in huge employment losses among the ranks of the roughly 2.9 million nonminerals extraction-related jobs that comprise America’s coastal economy, according to a 2016 report from the National Ocean Economics Program.

Accelerating offshore oil and gas development

President Trump doubled down on his initial climate change denialism by announcing his intent to dramatically and rapidly expand offshore oil and gas production in federal waters. On April 28, he issued the “Presidential Executive Order Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” This action effectively set U.S. offshore oil and gas policy back to 2008, when the George W. Bush era “drill, baby, drill” policies contributed to both the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and Shell’s $7 billion Arctic Ocean oil exploration boondoggle.

The executive order jumpstarts a fresh review of President Obama’s Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program that eliminated Arctic and Atlantic Ocean oil and gas leases for the next five years. Obama had also halted permitting of seismic testing—using sonic pulses to test for the possible presence of oil and gas deposits—a practice proven to harm endangered whales and marine mammals. Wasting no time, on June 5, Trump’s National Marine Fisheries Service announced it would seek permits for five companies to engage in seismic testing off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

The commercial fishing industry has opposed offshore fossil fuel exploration in the Atlantic, including seismic testing. In addition, more than 120 local governments from Key West to New Jersey have already expressed formal opposition to needlessly jeopardizing their thriving tourism and fishing-based economies with the risk of an offshore oil spill. This bipartisan coastal uprising has even made its way to Congress, where more than 30 members of congress, including many Republicans from Florida to New Jersey, have expressed staunch opposition to any drilling off their shores.

Attacks on National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments

Not content with sending offshore oil and gas policy back to the pre-Deepwater Horizon days, President Trump’s America-First energy strategy also called for assessments of all National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments designated or expanded within the past decade in order to determine the cost of managing each area as well as the “opportunity costs associated with potential energy and mineral exploration and production.” In other words, he wants to know how much oil, gas, and other minerals could potentially be extracted from our most hallowed marine ecosystems.

These include monuments designated or expanded by Presidents Obama and Bush, such as Papahānaumokuākea and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, as well as National Marine Sanctuaries from the Florida Keys to the California coast.

A separate executive order signed last April also directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to “review” all national monuments designated since 1996 that exceed 100,000 acres or that the secretary of the interior determines did not have adequate public input. This review was initiated largely at the behest of the Utah congressional delegation, which opposed President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument on federal land in that state. However, the scope of this executive order also includes all Marine National Monuments.

Marine National Monuments prevent all commercial fishing within their boundaries, though some fisheries—such as the lobster and red crab fisheries in the case of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument—are granted a period of years during which they can continue operations as they seek alternate fishing grounds. Commercial fishing bans in these areas serve as a means of ensuring fish have safe spaces, free from threat of harvest to build up populations that then can spill over into areas available for fishing, ultimately protecting the species and generating more fish for fishermen to catch. Monuments also provide areas free of most human interaction that scientists can treat as living laboratories to determine what effect climate change is having on fish populations absent other human-induced pressures such as commercial fishing, mining, cable laying, or other intrusive activities. Similarly, marine sanctuaries protect many of America’s underwater treasures—from Civil War shipwrecks to astounding coral reefs and kelp forests—ensuring that this precious national heritage is preserved for future generations.

Tapping a nonscientist to head NOAA

Last month, The Washington Post reported that Barry Myers was “the leading candidate” to be nominated to serve as the next head of the nation’s most prominent scientific and oceanic agency. The trouble is, Myers has zero experience with either science or oceans. Eleven of the 12 administrators who have led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since its inception have held PhDs—a level of expertise that Myers lacks. The two administrators who served under President Obama, Jane Lubchenco and Kathryn Sullivan, each bore impeccable scientific credentials. Lubchenco is one of the world’s most renowned marine ecologists, and Sullivan is a former oceanographic officer in the U.S. Navy; a crew member on three space shuttle missions; and the first American woman to walk in space. President Bush’s NOAA administrator, Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, served in the U.S. Navy, holds a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard University, and had previously served as president and CEO of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education.*

Myers’ lone claim to NOAA-related expertise is his current position as the CEO of AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting company. His highest-profile foray in to the policy sphere involved lobbying for a 2005 bill introduced by then Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) that sought to prohibit the federal government from providing weather forecasting directly to the public. Under this bill, the government would instead provide data to the private sector for free and then allow companies, such as AccuWeather, to charge the public for the privilege of knowing when it was going to rain. According to a 2006 report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Myers and his fellow AccuWeather executives allegedly showered Sen. Santorum and the GOP with more than $40,000 in contributions between 2003 and 2006.

 Slashing NOAA’s budget

Finally, NOAA was not spared the carnage of President Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. Under that proposal, the agency would face an overall 16 percent reduction in funding, including complete elimination of some of the most universally popular and successful programs the agency has to offer. Funding for the National Sea Grant College Program and Coastal Zone Management Program would be completely eliminated under the president’s request, as would the National Estuarine Research Reserve System—a network of coastal research sites that double as public access and recreation points nationwide.

These programs are resoundingly popular among legislators because they provide welcome investments in regional, state, and local programs that pay dividends back to society on many fronts. For example, in 2015, the $73 million put into the Sea Grant program returned $575 million in positive economic effects.

Conclusion

President Trump’s ocean policy actions to date represent a direct attack on sustainable, science-based management of America’s marine resources and coastal economies. What’s more, the policies buck decades of ocean progress delivered by recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike to balance preservation, management, and use of America’s coasts and oceans. Trump’s proposals represent a dangerous outlier from mainstream ocean policy, one that will certainly face growing bipartisan resistance over the next three and a half years.

Michael Conathan is the director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress. Shiva Polefka, associate director of ocean policy at the Center, also contributed to this column. 

*Correction, June 8, 2017: This column has been updated to accurately reflect Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher’s background and experience.