Tag Archives: President Barack Obama

President Obama raises ocean issues to a high priority

President Obama is being praised for his decision to pull together all the ocean-related challenges this nation faces and for plotting a unified course of action.

On Friday, the president issued a memorandum calling for a task force to develop a national ocean policy along with a “framework” for action and a set of objectives. See the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, along with a news story by reporter Doug Palmer of Reuters.

I was tempted to state cynically that actions speak louder than words, so we should curb our enthusiasm about what can be done to save the oceans. But then I talked to Bill Ruckelshaus, who co-chairs the Joint Ocean Commission, a national group dedicated to this topic.

Ruckelshaus seems to be thrilled with this latest development, following years of failed promises from the Bush administration.

“This is quite a significant event, really,” Bill told me. “It moves the oceans up on the presidential agenda, which means they will get more attention from Congress and from agencies in the administration. Presidencies are all about setting agendas, and this means more attention will be paid to the recommendations we made.”

I’ll tell you a little more about what my conversation with Mr. Ruckelshaus, but first I’ll review the history.

Five years ago, similar praise was accorded to President Bush after the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy — a presidentially appointed body — released it’s comprehensive examination of the major problems facing the oceans. The report included a list of potential solutions.

Adm. James D. Watkins, a retired Navy officer who chaired the commission, expressed enthusiasm for the reception he felt the report was getting from the Bush administration.

“President Bush’s response to the Commission’s Report and his signing of Executive Order establishing a Secretarial-level Committee on Ocean Policy … sets into motion the important process of developing and implementing a new national ocean policy,” Watkins declared.

Despite the positive reaction, I don’t believe a whole lot came about. (Review the last three “report cards.”) A separate report written by the Pew Oceans Commission received even less attention.

After the two commissions dissolved, some members — including Ruckelshaus — moved into a new organization called the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a nongovernmental group that maintained pressure for action through annual “report cards” relating the progress, or lack thereof, on ocean issues.

In April of this year, the joint commission issued an urgent new report called “Changing Oceans, Changing World: Ocean Priorities for the Obama Administration and Congress” (PDF 280 kb). I outlined that report in a Water Ways entry on April 7.

And so now we come to today, five months into the new administration, which seems to be trying to do everything at once. Can there really be much energy left for a discussion about the oceans?

Bill Ruckelshaus is undaunted. “I think holding back and doing things one at a time just doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to act while the energy is there.”

Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon, now chairs the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership, where he is heading the effort to reverse the degradation of our inland waterways.

President Bush created the U.S. Commission on Oceans, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But pulling all the environmental agencies together and getting Congress to focus on budgets, regulations and international treaties just never came to pass.

Why is Obama’s action different?

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Obama administration juggles offshore energy issues

The battle over offshore oil drilling is resting on the back burner, but sooner or later the Obama administration will be forced to decide if the value of more domestic petroleum supplies outweighs the risks to the environment.

When oil prices reached astronomical levels during the heat of the presidential campaign, Obama said he could support offshore drilling under the right circumstances.

Since his election, environmental groups have been pressuring the president and Congress to restore the previous ban on offshore drilling, whereas oil companies have been pushing to get new leases in place.

The administration has not said what direction it will take, but it has allowed leases to move forward in the Gulf of Mexico, where deeper wells have been increasing available reserves.

See Jad Mouawad’s excellent summary of the current state of the issue in The New York Times.

As for the East and West coasts, the administration appears to be in no rush to decide what to do. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced in February that he would slow down the rush to develop offshore reserves to allow more time for study. See Interior press release.

The president has asked Interior’s Mineral Management Service and U.S. Geological Survey to produce a report on supplies by the end of March. Four meetings are scheduled to discuss the report and gather opinions about the future of drilling.

The meetings will be held in Atlantic City, N.J., on April 6; New Orleans on April 8; Anchorage, Alaska, on April 14; and in San Francisco on April 16.

But oil is not the only kind of energy being considered for offshore development. On Tuesday, Salazar issued a joint statement with Jon Wellinghoff, acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to guide development of renewable energy supplies from offshore areas.

In a press release, Salazar said: “Our renewable energy is too important for bureaucratic turf battles to slow down our progress. I am proud that we have reached an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding our respective roles in approving offshore renewable energy projects. This agreement will help sweep aside red tape so that our country can capture the great power of wave, tidal, wind and solar power off our coasts.”

In general, the Interior Department is expected to focus on wind and solar projects, while FERC manages projects that use wave and tidal energy.

The move was prompted by what a New York Times headline writer calls “surf wars,” in which competing companies claim the same stretches of ocean for energy development. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operates under a kind of first-come approach to a specific area while the Interior Department focuses on issuing leases. See story by NY Times reporter Evan Lehmann.

It appears that the recession has bought Obama a little time to deal with the energy crisis, but some people’s hopes may be a bit high if they think he can strike a perfect balance that addresses supply shortages, high prices and greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama promises to elevate science above politics

“Science nerds returned to the White House Monday, triumphant and ready to tinker.”

That’s how Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Ben Feller described the White House atmosphere Monday as President Barack Obama promised to allow science, not politics, to lead the way through thorny decisions by his administration. (Read their story on Earthlink.)

The story quoted Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as saying there were more happy scientists in the White House Monday than he has seen during his 30 years in Washington, D.C.

In Obama’s own words during the signing ceremony on a new stem cell research policy:

“Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

“By doing this, we will ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.”

The AP writers offered a voice to those opposed to lifting restrictions on stem cell research. But I was more interested in the broader questions of science.

As Chris Mooney, author of the book “The Republican War on Science,” wrote today in the blog “Science Progress”:

“The whole problem with the Bush administration’s responses to many allegations of political interference with science is that the answer was always the same: Nothing to see here folks, move along. Repeatedly, Bush spokespeople … simply asserted that all the whistleblowers were wrong, all the journalists were wrong … They didn’t seriously investigate the problems; they dismissed the idea that there were any problems. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very credible approach.”

Science Debate 2008, a group that organized scientists, educators and political leaders during the presidential campaign, offered congratulations to Obama for following through on his pledge to lift restrictions on stem cell research and to restore scientific integrity to the federal government. See “congratulations” and answers to 14 questions about science posed to Obama and John McCain.

UPDATE, WEDNESDAY, 3-11
Obama’s science memo can be found on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists.

Obama restores endangered species oversight

President Obama announced yesterday that he will restore strong scientific “consultations” for actions affecting species listed under Endangered Species Act. His order reverses a Bush policy that said agencies could do their own reviews.

The video, at right, shows Obama making the announcement before an audience of Interior Department employees celebrating the 160th anniversary of the agency.

One of the best examples regarding the need for consultation comes from the Northwest, where we have salmon listed as threatened and endangered. The Environmental Protection Agency was required to review how certain pesticides affect fish. The EPA failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for protecting salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups sued and won.

When the consultation finally took place, NMFS scientists revamped the methodology used by the EPA and came up with a more credible calculation of risk, as well as proposing stronger protections for certain species. See my story in the Kitsap Sun Nov. 18 or read information issued by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

There are many examples in which consultation with scientists outside the lead agency has resulted in a better decision. Since the Bush policy is so new, I’m not aware of any decisions affecting endangered species that did not include consultations with the NMFS or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you are aware of any, please let me know.

Obama’s reversal in policy brought applause from environmental groups.

“With this action Mr. Obama has restored the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS to their rightful authority as scientific advisers to federal agencies and has signaled that the Endangered Species Act, like many of the plants and animals it protects, is on its way to recovery,” said Michael Bean, attorney and wildlife expert for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Obama’s move today puts expert scientists back in the driver’s seat for management of the nation’s endangered species,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Obama has acted swiftly to meet an important campaign promise and show that he puts science and endangered species before politics.”

Business leaders were not thrilled, saying government regulations would only slow down approvals for all projects, even the routine ones.

A statement from Keith McCoy, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers:

“In a time of serious economic crisis, it is more important than ever that we move forward with energy development and construction wherever feasible. The inevitable result of upending this Interior rule will be to delay and possibly deny badly-needed development projects.

“This will not stimulate economic growth, it will undermine it. The NAM looks forward to working with the Obama Administration and members of Congress to implement federal policies that promote economic expansion while protecting environmental quality and health, including the health of manufacturing workers and their families.”

Here’s the text of Obama’s executive memo on the issue.