Congress spars over 'ocean zoning'

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — House members clashed Tuesday over a White House plan that essentially calls for zoning the oceans, with Republicans charging that it already has created more job-killing bureaucracy and Democrats saying it could give Americans more certainty on how they can use busy public waters.

"It has the potential to stunt economic growth and the jobs associated with that growth," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top-ranked Democrat on the panel, likened the idea — formally known as marine spatial planning — to making plans for air space.

"Opposing ocean planning is like opposing air-traffic control," he said.

Hastings, who represents an agricultural district, said he feared that the ocean-planning process ultimately could lead to new regulations on lands adjacent to rivers and watersheds that drain into the ocean.

"For example," he said, "a farmer working hundreds of miles from the coastline could be at risk of a new layer of regulatory review based on the ocean."

At a committee hearing Tuesday called by Hastings, business groups assailed the proposal, and an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce accused the White House of trying to promote the plan with little fanfare, even though it could have a big impact.

"From my vantage point, the national ocean policy is the most significant issue affecting energy security, job creation and economic growth that no one has heard about," said Christopher Guith, the chamber's vice president for policy.

Urging the White House to back away from the plan, Guith said the proposal would have a "plethora of impacts on the country" and add "yet another maze of real or de facto regulation for businesses to attempt to navigate."

"At a time of anemic economic growth and persistently high unemployment, the country is looking to its leaders to reverse these trends," Guith said.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said the U.S. must do better planning for its waters to reverse its "current destructive path." He called the current situation "a bureaucratic mess," noting that more than 140 federal laws and dozens of agencies have jurisdiction over ocean space.

"The terrifying fact is ... that our ocean economy is at risk," Farr said. "Just this summer, a growing 83-mile dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay was described by scientists as the worst in history."

Hastings said he called the oversight hearing because President Barack Obama acted without congressional approval when he created a task force to come up with new policies to manage the oceans and the nation's coastlines. And he said the president's new "tangled web of bureaucracy" is sure to lead to White House requests for more federal spending.

"With the stroke of the pen, President Obama created a new, huge, top-down bureaucracy that could override states and local authorities and change the way activities on the oceans, coasts and far inland will be managed," Hastings said. "The executive order creates 10 national policies, a 27-member national ocean council, an 18-member governance coordinating committee and nine regional planning bodies."

But most alarming, Hastings said, is "the mandatory ocean zoning ordered to be imposed."

"Disguised with the label of coastal marine spatial planning, ocean zoning could place huge sections of the ocean off-limits to activities not zoned as government-approved," Hastings said.

He added that the scope of the president's plan "goes well beyond the oceans and includes the federalization of the Great Lakes, where states could be dictated to by a regional planning body on where certain economic activities are allowed."

Barry Rutenberg, chairman-elect of the National Association of Home Builders, said homebuilders already compete in one of the most highly regulated industries and that the already-battered industry cannot be "weighed down by additional regulatory burdens." He expressed concern that ocean planning would focus too heavily on climate change.

Markey accused opponents of using "scare tactics" by suggesting the plan would lead to fewer jobs. He said the word "plan" is not a dirty word and that making plans on how to best use ocean space would promote both commerce and comity, in some cases even allowing development to move more quickly because rules would already be in place.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said it only makes sense to have better planning, adding that it's important for everyone to know where development cannot take place in the oceans.

"It's busy out there, and it's getting busier," he said.

Farr said that 22 of the nation's 35 coastal states, including Washington, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, "explicitly recognize the need" for better spatial planning, which he described as a "non-regulatory, bottoms-up approach."

Washington state passed its marine spatial law in 2010, but it requires that federal, private or non-state funds be used before planning can begin.

So far, that has not happened, according to Jennifer Hennessey of the Washington Department of Ecology.

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