Is the Political Tide Turning … for the Oceans and the Environment?

 By David Helvarg / Blue Notes / December 17, 2012

We just had an election in which the public seemed to see the need for larger changes in society. And of course changes of any kind tend to come in waves. Along with the emergence of a new demographic profile of the U.S. electorate we saw people in a number of states voting for Gay marriage equality, legalized use of marijuana and in California, a tax increase to help save public education.

At the same time Super Storm Sandy’s impact on the shore put climate change front and center on the public policy agenda for any politician willing to take the heat from the fossil fuel industry. Unfortunately, while average people may be open to big changes the two party political system has become far more polarized and incremental than it once was. That’s why the keystone laws that protect America’s oceans like the Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act  and others are now close to middle age. The Clean Water Act is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The way in which our system has bogged down in a quagmire of waste fraud and unregulated corporate abuse can be hugely frustrating when working for ocean and coastal protection. One example: In 2000, I wrote about EPA efforts to impose Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for pollution – nitrogen and sediment from factory farm waste and construction sites – running into the Chesapeake Bay following the failure of a voluntary multi-state effort that has been ongoing since 1983. In 2010 the EPA finalized its plan to put the bay on a “pollution diet,” that’s supposed to clean it up by 2025. This was one of the items the Obama campaign bragged about in its response to our ocean letter to the Presidential Candidates (see Blue Notes #104).

However within weeks of the EPA announcing its TMDL plan the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Home Builders and others filed suit. The lawsuit went to court in October 2012 where the judge told the contending parties, “Don’t expect a decision soon.” This means attempts to clean up the bay are destined to be stalled for at least 40 years (1983-2025), mostly by industrial chicken producers and shore side developers whose paid politicians can then point to this failure as proof that government doesn’t work. By contrast the free market has worked well for algae blooms and bacterial mats but not so much for oysters, striped bass and kids who like to swim without getting sick. For more on the TMDL lawsuit see the November issue of the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

On a more hopeful note ocean friendly policies in coastal states like California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island demonstrate that good governance in places where the public cares deeply for its waters can still make a positive difference.

At the first Blue Vision Summit back in July 2004 there was talk of a BOB, a ‘Big Ocean Bill,’ to codify the recommendations of two major ocean commissions into federal law. But as Congress became ever more polarized and turned even ocean conservation into a partisan issue, blue movement strategy shifted to executive action. This led, thanks to lots of grassroots pressure, to President Obama signing off on a National Ocean Policy (NOP) in the summer of 2010. Today NOP looks good on paper but still needs to be implemented through nine Regional Planning Bodies, to be made up of representatives from federal, state and tribal authorities.

The first 2-day meeting for the first body was held in Portland, Maine, this November. It promises to better coordinate a range of ocean uses across New England while reducing their environmental impacts. The many tribal representatives attending emphasized the need to improve regional water quality. The meeting also attracted lots of public comment and participation from both the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, made up of New England states already involved in efforts to restore their coastal waters and the New England Ocean Action Network, a seaweed coalition of conservationists, fishing groups, the New England Aquarium and others committed to, “Healthy Oceans, Thriving Communities.” It is because of this multi-stakeholder citizen involvement that the first regional body, rather than simply a meeting place for government employees, holds promise to actually improve the health and habitats of the Northeast’s public seas.

But lack of transparency and clarity in the setting up of the next eight regional bodies, including in the storm battered mid-Atlantic, suggests the NOP will only work if ocean folks from all regions of the nation are at the table and at every public hearing working as advocates and gadflies for the sea.

When hundreds of us march onto Capitol Hill this May 15 as part of the movement’s 4th Blue Vision Summit, we should also be demanding large change from our elected leaders. Along with full funding for marine science, exploration and frontline ocean agencies such as NOAA and the Coast Guard, how about a Healthy Oceans Act at the level of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of the last century? Why not make, “healthy oceans, thriving communities,” the law of the land and the sea for the 21st Century? That might not seem politically feasible in 2013, but it’s what would be in the public interest.

 David Helvarg is a former San Diego progressive media journalist who now lives in San Francisco and publishes Blue Notes.


  1. avatarJohn says

    I’m confused about where your efforts are being focused, are they toward clean water and the environment locally, or toward global matters such as climate change? If it’s the former, I applaud the actions of the last 40 years, since the era of Love canal and Los Angeles basin smog so thick you could cut it with a knife great strides have been taken in cleaning up the world around us.
    If it’s the latter, that world not around us that we don’t control, to break the bad new to you many of those things we’ve been doing for the past 40 years to clean up here only accelerated the global level damage.
    Oh sure developing smog control systems that worked for our cars resulted in technologies every vehicle benefits from, for example.
    However what happens when we target domestic manufacturing with stringent emissions controls? They comply with the initial stages, which are reasonable. It’s not hard to not dump all your toxic chemical effluent in a river, or put filtration on your smokestacks. As time goes by though and the level of restrictions become unreasonable, it becomes difficult if not impossible for them to meet these demands and turn a profit, so what did they do? Moved their factories, to the other side of the planet, where they can pollute with virtual impunity.
    Out of the sight of influence of environmental activists who still want to save the planet, but mistakenly think they can do so with political fights domestically.
    You can clean up at home all you like, but don’t pretend anyone should be equally short sighted to confuse that with efforts to stop climate change. Some of us realize all you’ve really done is make that much worse by jump starting China’s industrial revolution.