Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thinking BIG: Analyzing Cumulative Impacts with the Environmental Law Institute

Surfrider regularly challenges and litigates against harmful one-off projects through our local, grassroots approach. Oftentimes, we are the first community members to identify the specific problems that are plaguing our oceans. In addition to attacking issues on a project by project basis, we also recognize the need to take a step back and assess the larger scale state of affairs for how we can prevent these types of problems from occurring again. How can we make a better system or framework for protection of our oceans, waves and beaches?

To tackle these questions, the Environmental Law Institute comprised a Working Group of 20 top-notch coastal and ocean law practitioners, policy-makers and academics to get in a room together and hash out the issue of how to address cumulative impacts. This Working Group, which included Surfrider Foundation’s Pete Stauffer and Angela Howe, focused on assessment and minimization of the cumulative harmful effects on our ocean and pursuit to maintain the health, resilience and productivity of an ecosystem.

First and foremost, the Working Group decided to define the term “cumulative impacts.” How do they relate to ecosystem-based management (“EBM”)? To marine spatial planning (“MSP”)? As ELI points out, cumulative impacts can be defined from a scientific perspective as the summed impacts of all activities affecting the ecosystem, both human and natural. This is overlain by the existing legal framework, which focuses on the point at which those impacts become significant. In fact, “significance” is the trigger at which an impact becomes legally actionable under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). The more difficult questions remain: Who should bear the burden of prior impacts? When and how should we assess the state of cumulative impacts? How do you effectively and economically evaluate the success of cumulative impact mitigation and the effectiveness of planning processes to avoid harmful cumulative impacts? How to address the lack of standardization among mitigation measures?

Specifically, ELI’s work thus far has outlined legal and policy mechanisms that support cumulative impacts analysis through 1) proposing a framework for assessing and addressing cumulative impacts, 2) assessing existing laws of West Coast states in light of their ability to support an adaptive cumulative impacts framework, and 3) outlining potential remedies to address gaps in the current system. The Working Group’s efforts are geared at improving the current management system and improving overall consideration of cumulative impacts. There also is a recognized need for funding and political support of these improvements.

For next steps, there will be research geared at addressing the above-mentioned issues and concerns. The project will include outreach to people who may use this information, including research reports and materials that will target practitioners, policy-makers and researchers. Another target is the public, through increasing public awareness and involvement with healthy ocean endeavors such as this one, and through using public knowledge and feedback to further develop and inform our decisions regarding ocean uses, including conservation. ELI has held two meetings with the Cumulative Impacts Working Group, and the next and final meeting is in June to tie it all up!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Supporting a National Ocean Policy

For many years, ocean lovers and environmentalists have been calling for a National Ocean Policy or unifying law for our oceans. This policy would comprehensively take into account the multiple factors and uses of the ocean in focusing on how to best utilize and conserve ocean resources. Such a law has been proposed by our federal legislature through Oceans 21 (HR 21), a bill that has been repeatedly introduced in the House to provide the governance framework for national ocean policy including strengthening the leadership for ocean governance. It has long been regarded as “Healthy Oceans Legislation” directed at benefiting the oceans and coasts of local communities on a nationwide scale, but it has failed to recieve the political backing it needed to pass through the House and Senate.

In response to the dearth of a unifying ocean policy, President Barack Obama charged the nation with a “stewardship responsibility to maintain healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations."

Last June, President Obama created a 23-member Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to develop recommendations for a groundbreaking National Ocean Policy. The proposed Policy is designed to organize the more than 20 agencies and 140 laws and regulations that govern our ocean resources into a comprehensive and effective governance scheme. After several public hearings around the nation that generated overwhelmingly positive public comments in support of a National Oceans Policy, the Task Force issued their second report in December 2009 that further lays the groundwork for proceeding to coordinate the many uses of our ocean and coastal resources. This interim draft is open for public comments here. A final report that includes a broad national ocean policy framework, including marine spatial planning is due to be released toward the end of February.

So how can individual citizens show their support for the Obama Ocean Policy Task Force in their efforts to make a National Ocean Policy? Well, tomorrow, January 13th is "Wear Blue for the Oceans" day. Across the nation, supporters are rallying in over eight cities to tell the Obama Administration to support a national policy that protects, maintains and restores our oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes by Wearing Blue for the Oceans. Public rallies are scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Honolulu, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Galveston, Texas, Tampa, Florida, Seal Beach, California and New Orleans aiming to unite their voices and interests to make an impact on national policy. Even if you don't live in these cities you can simply take a picture of yourself wearing blue and upload with your statement. The Wear Blue for the Oceans website can tell you more about how you can participate.