Sierra Club Comments on
Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force Interim Plan
The Honorable Nancy Sutley
Chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality
722 Jackson Place, NW
Washington, DC 20503
Dear Chair Sutley:
The Sierra Club commends the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force for the bold and
comprehensive national ocean policy, framework for policy coordination, and implementation
strategy contained in its Interim Report published September 10, 2009. We will comment on
each of these three elements of the Report.
National Ocean Policy
We agree that the overriding principle of the National Ocean Policy should be stewardship,
acknowledging our responsibilities to generations yet unborn. The Interim Report also
acknowledges, and emphasizes, that the cumulative results of human activities up until now,
especially the use of fossil fuels, will result in global warming, sea level rises, ocean
acidification, and other changes adversely impacting future generations. We can no longer claim
ignorance over the future impacts of our current actions, rather we need to recognize the need to
act now to prevent or mitigate such future impacts, and we are pleased to see that the Interim
Report has such a focus.
We agree with the set of Principles proposed for guiding implementation of the National Ocean
Policy, key among them being (1) an ecosystem-based management approach, (2) protection and
restoration of resilience and biological diversity, (3) minimization of environmental impacts to
ecosystems, including cumulative impacts, (4) decision-making consistent with the best available
science, and (5) use of the precautionary approach, favoring actions to prevent environmental
degradation where there is a lack of full scientific certainty.
We do have one minor change in wording to suggest, which is as follows below:
Page 13: Change: " Bolster the conservation and sustainable uses of land in ways that will
improve the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems; and..”
To: " Bolster the conservation, and manage the sustainable uses, of land in ways that will
improve the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems; and..”
Rationale: It is not clear to us how one would “bolster” sustainable uses of land.
Our main concern, and the area in which we believe we have much to contribute, is with the
implementation of this ambitious policy, given the tangled web of laws, rules, regulations,
jurisdictional boundaries, agencies, and special interests that have resulted in the current
degraded status of our ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems. As the authors of the report are
aware, the National Ocean Policy has no budget or legislative mandate at this point. It is highly
likely that some current laws, rules, and regulations conflict with elements of the National Ocean
Policy. Many of the urgent actions required for implementation will occur in the coastal zones of
states and territories, and will be helped or hindered by decisions at the county or other local
To put some reality into the last statement, we include the following comments from one of our
Middle Atlantic volunteers reviewing the Interim Report:
“It all sounds wonderful. Words are so easy compared to action, and how can one evaluate what they
will produce? I certainly can't foretell! We just have to keep on trying.
EPA has devolved responsibility for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Virginia creeks
and rivers to the state which, in turn, has devolved responsibility to the counties. Because
agricultural fertilization practices are the largest source of pollution in rural counties, locally elected
officials are unlikely to anything to upset local farming communities. Unlike coastal Florida, our
population density isn't big enough to entice an environmental law or justice groups to sue the state
or EPA. Nutrients, primarily from farms (including unregulated chicken shit from the Eastern Shore
and sewage sludge from DC), continue to leak into the Bay, the health of which scores something like
28/100, and is erroneously given a grade of D when F would be a more accurate assessment.”
It will take lots of political pressure, from the local level upward, to successfully implement the
National Ocean Policy, so the involvement of citizen activists will be crucial.
Framework for Policy Coordination
Both the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission stressed the need
for improved ocean governance. Thus, we found it significant that the Joint Ocean Commission
Initiative, in a statement released September 17, 2009 has endorsed the approach taken in the
We recognize that integration and coordination of federal agencies must be a primary focus of
the Framework. Given the multiplicity of federal agencies involved, that Framework
unavoidably will be complex. But, it is not headless. We do see that ultimately the buck stops
with the President, and the National Ocean Council co-chairs advising him on ocean policy
We are especially interested in the mechanisms by which NGOs, and the general public, can
provide the grassroots (and, the seagrass roots some advocates represent) input into the
Since ecosystems ignore political boundaries, we agree that a regional approach to ecosystems-
based management is appropriate. Accordingly, we are encouraging networking of Sierra Club
Chapters and Groups into Action Teams that cut across political boundaries. These include, but
are not limited to, the Clean Water Action Team, Marine Action Team, the Atlantic Region
Action Team, and the Mississippi River Action Team.
Our Mississippi River Action Team is especially concerned with addressing, and reversing, the
processes creating the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a problem mentioned on Page 36 of
the Interim Report. The Sierra Club was a key sponsor, together with the Clean Water Network
and the Gulf Restoration Network, of a forum held in New Orleans October 2-3, 2009 to deal
with the Dead Zone issue.
Our Action Teams typically network with other NGO organizations, and regional networks such
as the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). Membership of the GRN embraces a wide spectrum of
organizations, including the Alabama and Delta Chapters of the Sierra Club; Environmental
Action Program, Loyola University; the League of Women Voters of St. Tammany; Natural
Resources Defense Council; Ocean Conservancy; Oceana; Texas Environmental Justice
Advocacy Services; and Turkey Creek Community Initiatives.
The Atlantic Region Action Team deals with, among other things, the challenge of siting
renewable energy facilities, such as wind farms, in locations and configurations that avoid or
minimize damage to marine and ecosystems. The Marine Spatial Planning component of the
National Action Plan is of particular relevance to these efforts.
The Marine Action Team deals with, and seeks input on, marine issues across all regions of the
Club, such as developing these comments on behalf of the Club.
We note that the Policy Coordination Framework creates a Governance Advisory Committee
(GAC) whose membership includes “(1) one representative from each of the six regions, chosen by
the NOC, in consultation with regional ocean councils (Great Lakes Commission, Governors’ South
Atlantic Alliance, Gulf of Mexico Alliance, Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, Northeast
Regional Ocean Council, and the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health);” Page 24.
The regional ocean councils mentioned appear to be interstate compacts consisting of
representatives of state governments (including Canadian governments in the case of the Great
Lakes Commission). These are logical groupings for coordination and communication between
state and federal agencies. We submit, however, that while the regional ocean councils may be
necessary sources of input to the GAC, they are not sufficient. Sierra Club has found it necessary
to sue numerous state governments in order to enforce the Clean Water Act, the National
Environmental Policy Act, and other environmental protection measures. To many of our
members, their state government may be viewed as the source of their environmental problems,
rather than the source of their solutions. Also, the six regional councils are not the only regional
councils in existence. For example, the governments of both the U.S. and Canada are represented
on the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. The Council has an active mapping
program, an ecosystem based management toolkit under development in cooperation with
NGOs, and other valuable initiatives under way. The geographic extent of the Gulf of Maine
Council is a much better fit to the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, which spans the U.S. – Canadian
border, than is the geographic extent of the Northeast Regional Ocean Council.
So, we consider it important that the NOC, or the GAC, not be limited to the regional councils as
sources for input on regional issues. We recognize that federal agencies providing support for
bodies such as the Gulf of Maine Council, e.g. EPA and NOAA, provide channels for input, but
it would be good for the NOC to receive unfiltered input from NGO activists and the general
public on regional, and other, issues.
As mentioned in the Interim Report, workshops are one such avenue for receiving NGO and
other public input. Other avenues include public comments submitted on environmental impact
statements and other documents made available for public comments. It is not clear to us,
however, how such input would reach either the NOC or GAC.
Other avenues for regional, state, territorial, and local inputs include the public comments
received from meetings of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, Coastal Zone Management advisory
committees, National Marine Sanctuary advisory committees, and similar advisory bodies.
The Implementation Strategy should serve as the path from the lofty words of the plan objectives
to real world actions and accomplishments. It appears that the Action Plans to be developed for
implementation of the nine objectives will contain the requisite detail for tracking progress, i.e.
the Action Plans will “Identify specific and measurable near-term, mid-term, and long-term
actions, with appropriate milestones, performance measures, and outcomes to fulfill each
objective; “ Page 28.
As also stated on Page 28, each plan is to address the obstacles and opportunities associated with
it. On Page 17 it is stated that “Departments and agencies shall work to identify future
budgetary, administrative, regulatory, or legislative proposal requirements to implement
these elements within the budgetary and management guidelines of the President’s
budget.” The combination of these two directives will be critical for assuring that there is
adequate funding, required regulations, and required legislation in place as needed to implement
We would also add adequate enforcement to the list of prerequisites for success, and suggest that
enforcement of existing rules and statutes would be a good place to begin with implementation.
In comments submitted previously by Ed Hopkins of our Washington DC office, we listed some
specific recommendations relevant to the Implementation Strategy. For completeness of the
record, we are including pertinent sections of those comments below:
“National Policy: Climate Change
Even if steps are taken now to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, climate scientists have
predicted that some amount of climate change and resulting impacts will continue due to the
effects of gases which have already been released. Coastal communities, whose populations and
property values have soared in recent decades, are among those most vulnerable to severe
impacts. Some of the consequences of climate change – rising sea levels, more intense
hurricanes, heavier rainfalls and stronger storm surges – pose a very significant threat to these
coastal communities and natural resources.
Coastal communities will clearly face greater risk, and we encourage the administration to
develop policies that will protect lives, property and coastal natural resources. In our view,
policies should emphasize the importance of protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, which
can buffer communities from higher sea levels and storm surge. One study found that these
wetlands provide $23.2 billion per year in storm protection services. Yet these wetlands continue
to be lost to development and other causes. Similarly, making homes and other structures more
resilient to hurricane-force winds is highly cost efficient, yielding benefits of $4 for every dollar
Reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) could also help protect coastal areas
from impacts of climate change. These reforms should include phasing in risk-based rates;
restricting coverage in high-hazard and environmentally sensitive areas; reducing reliance on
levees for new development and re-development; policies that emphasize stronger floodplain
protection standards; and requiring FEMA to take into account the potential impacts of climate
change in developing flood maps. Needs-based assistance should accompany the phasing in of
risk-based insurance rates to ensure that low-income coastal property owners are effectively
The federal government should take into account the likely effects of climate change in its own
funding programs by developing policies to prevent funding of highways, roads and other
infrastructure projects in areas likely to be inundated as a result of sea level rise, increased
hurricane intensity and flooding.
We also encourage the administration to avoid policies that would encourage and subsidize
development in environmentally sensitive areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Expanding the NFIP to cover wind damage or establishing federal debt repayment guarantees
and federal reinsurance for state natural catastrophe funds would provide a subsidy for ill-
advised construction or re-development in high-hazard and environmentally sensitive areas.
These approaches would also undermine the coastal wetlands protection/restoration, housing
mitigation and NFIP reforms we suggest.
Federally-funded beach nourishment projects are another type of subsidy that deserves increased
scrutiny in light of the impacts of climate change on our coasts. At best a very expensive short-
term fix, rising sea levels and larger storm surges make these projects even less tenable. We hope
that the administration will re-examine policies that support beach nourishment.
National Policy: Nutrient Pollution
EPA should set numeric water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus if states continue to
fail to set standards. Nutrient pollution consistently ranks as one of the top causes of water
quality degradation. Dead zones caused by excessive nutrients ring U.S. coastal waters from the
Chesapeake Bay, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. Recognizing the importance
of controlling nutrient pollution, U.S. EPA began in 1998 to press states to set numeric water
quality standards for nutrients. In the more than ten years since then, however, only a handful of
states and territories have acted. A stronger threat of federal action is needed to prompt states to
set these standards. We urge the administration to make clear that continued delay in setting
standards is unacceptable and that the federal government will impose standards if states are
unwilling or unable.”
Marine Spatial Planning
We note that the Task Force is currently seeking input on the Marine Spatial Planning
component of the National Ocean Policy, including public meetings in New Orleans and
Cleveland. We will submit separate comments on Marine Spatial Planning following those
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our comments on this very important report.
J. David Raney
Chair, Coral Reef Working Group
Sierra Club Marine Action Team