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Reversing Obama's initiatives, Trump focuses national ocean policy on business

Trump says Obama-era policy on the oceans was overly bureaucratic. Instead of conservation, his plan focuses on business and national security.
Clownfish swim among coral reefs off the coast of the French overseas territory of Mayotte, in the Comoros Archipelago of the Indian Ocean.Alexis Rosenfeld / AFP — Getty Images
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By James Rainey

LOS ANGELES — President Donald Trump has unveiled a new policy that depicts the world’s oceans as a resource ripe for expanded business opportunities, reversing the Obama administration's emphasis on protecting "vulnerable" marine environments.

In issuing an executive order this week, Trump said he was “rolling back excessive bureaucracy” and focusing on “growing the ocean economy.”

“From sea to shining sea,” Trump said in a statement, “Americans benefit from the ocean’s bounty — from the industries it supports and the jobs it creates.”

The immediate impacts of the shift are unclear. Allies applauded the change as eliminating excessive government intrusion, while environmental organizations said it continues a pattern of Trump supporting industry over long-term protections for the environment. They also questioned how much emphasis the world's oceans would get from an administration that is yet to appoint a chief science adviser.

The difference in Obama and Trump’s views of the oceans is striking. Obama’s ocean policy, introduced in 2010, mentioned the environment more than twice as often as Trump’s new plan. And while Obama invoked the idea of “stewardship” of the sea as a precious resource eight times in his executive order, Trump did not mention that concept.

In addition to its focus on “ocean industries [that] employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” Trump’s directive speaks mostly to the oceans as a resource for promoting national security, including via “domestic energy production from federal waters.”

Trump in January moved to vastly expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, including a plan to open up federal waters off California for the first time in more than three decades.

The president said in his order that he would streamline coordination of the many government agencies that have an interest in the oceans by establishing a new inter-agency Ocean Policy Committee. Co-chairing that committee will be the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and its Office of Science and Technology Policy.

But critics questioned how much emphasis Trump will put on the oceans, pointing to the current absence of a top science adviser and an only recently nominated a head of the Council on Environmental Quality. "You can put in all the policy you want, but unless there is someone who can execute the policy, it's not worth the paper its written on," said Dick West, the former oceanographer of the Navy and consultant to many federal agencies on ocean policy.

Trump last week nominated former senior congressional staffer Mary Neumayr to lead the Council on Environmental Quality. (His previous nominee, quickly withdrawn, was Kathleen Hartnett White, a vociferous skeptic about climate change.)

Kathleen White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.Anthony Behar / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Another longtime bureaucrat, Deerin Babb-Brott, is expected to be named as executive director of Ocean Policy Committee. Currently the principal assistant director for oceans and environment in the White House science office, he brings "decades of experience in ocean planning and coastal management," according to a White House official. Between Neumayr and Babb-Brott "you could not ask for two more dedicated and qualified professionals working on this critically important issue," said Ross Gillfillan, spokesman for the White House science office.

Environmental organizations expressed dismay over Trump’s action, however, noting that planning for a comprehensive ocean policy had gone back to the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “We are disappointed that this administration is retreating from a holistic ocean policy that had sustainability at its core,” said Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy.

Rick Spinrad, chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Obama administration, said the new Trump policy evidences "a complete neglect of environmental awareness and sustainability and almost exclusively focuses on economic exploitability and the national security aspects." Spinrad added: "Those focuses are important, but minus the other issues, it's clearly a nod to further commercial exploitation of the oceans."

Still, even some of the environmental groups held out hope that the new Trump framework would continue some initiatives from previous administrations — including one that promotes better sharing of ocean research data among government agencies.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, praised Trump for reversing the “overreach” of the Obama era. Bishop said in a statement that Obama's rules had put a damper on economic opportunities at sea. The statement did not offer specific examples, but Bishop said the new executive order “will help the health of our oceans and ensure local communities impacted by ocean policy have a seat at the table.”

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