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Obama's National Ocean Policy

It wouldn't have prevented the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but a new national ocean policy, announced today by the White House, was welcomed by environmentalists. The policy is intended to promote oceans and great lakes that are "healthy and resilient, safe and productive."

The policy reflects a "modern outlook that doesn't mistake the oceans for wilderness, but a work zone where we need zoning," comments Chris Mann of the Pew Environment Group, who hopes the policy will increase the focus on environmental stewardship.

Former President George W. Bush created a national Committee on Ocean Policy in 2004 to improve federal coordination on the seas, but this effort largely fizzled. Mann hopes that Obama's effort will encourage agencies to take the mission more seriously.

The order creates a National Ocean Commission—co-chaired by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy—that would try to improve coordination and planning among federal agencies and state and local governments for the many uses of the coastal zone.

"It would be naive to think a policy like this could stop oil spills," Mann says, but perhaps the better coordination and sharing of information will help make drilling safer.

Based on two earlier reports from an ocean policy task force, the policy calls for marine spatial planning to reduce conflicts between users of the oceans and to better preserve ecosystems. The new commission won't create new regulations or do any zoning, however.

Under the policy, new regional organizations would create plans for various parts of the U.S. coastline within 6 to 12 months. The commission would provide guidance for these plans and ultimately help resolve the thorniest conflicts.

The final report from the task force is quite close to the previous drafts, but it elevates the role of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by giving the administrator a seat at the National Ocean Commission because of the agency's scientific resources. The council will start meeting later this summer.

The final recommendations (pdf) of the task force, created by President Barack Obama last June, were issued today. Nancy Sutley of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who chaired the task force, said in a press conference that she expects an Executive Order to be released today.