Trump's Executive Orders Ignore The Ocean's 'Blue Economy'

The war on nature seems to be targeting the ocean - again.

President Donald Trump's April 26 executive order to review national monuments created in the last ten years entails a review of national marine sanctuary designations, including the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

That announcement came a year and two days after former President Barack Obama expanded the boundaries of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, now the world's largest protected marine area and also under review.

Two days later, Trump signed another order calling for a review of the current 2017-22 offshore energy development plan.

That move came just four months after Obama banned more than 100 million acres in the US Arctic and Atlantic oceans from such development.

Ironically, a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report released just days prior to these announcements indicated the US segment of the $24 trillion global blue economy grew 15.6% from 2007 to 2014, more than the overall US economy.

And all this comes a month before ocean scientists were looking forward to celebrating World Oceans Day in June during a month that has traditionally been designated in the US as National Oceans Month. June also includes the Capitol Hill Ocean Week conference and NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries third "Get into Your Sanctuary" days.

But this set back to protecting the already stressed coastal ocean regions is drawing push-back from more than just ocean researchers and conservationists.

The Pentagon is asking lawmakers to resist oil and natural gas industry lobbyists' push to lift the drilling moratorium within 125 miles of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, arguing that offshore drilling rigs would make it difficult for the Defense Department to use the area for military training.

Democratic lawmakers also sent a letter to the Interior Department requesting release of "all risk assessments and analysis undertaken to determine how lifting the ban on drilling in these areas would not adversely affect fragile ecosystems or damage fishing, restaurant, or tourism interests." The letter also noted the government "should require oil and gas companies to use existing leases and opportunities in areas already open to drilling before even considering opening new areas to development."

And energy developers further up the coast are wondering how new oil rigs will affect offshore wind development just as the American Wind Energy Association released a report noting wind power added jobs 9 times faster than the overall American economy, with a record-high of 102,500 jobs in 2016.

Tapping the ocean's resources is nothing new and dates back centuries. But as technology expands our reach, the mindset of how to monetize every aspect of the oceans for short-term gain may be past its sustainable limits.

In fact, it's expected that proposals to mine the seafloor for copper, cobalt and nickel near hydrothermal vents will pick up after scientists also recently discovered large reserves of tellurium near the Canary Islands, which could yield about 3,000 tons of the rare earth metal used in solar panels.

This new wave of ocean resource extraction comes in the wake of a flurry of reports showing the consequences of the continued historic trend of treating the oceans with the same respect as one treats a toilet for pollutants.

British researchers have discovered high levels of toxic chemicals - including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - in creatures living in deep Pacific Ocean sea trenches.

A January 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation "New Plastics Economy" report notes that "in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans could contain more plastics than fish (by weight)."

The World Wildlife Fund reports that marine life populations dropped 49% between 1970 and 2012, and a 2016 UN analysis found nearly 90% of global fish stocks are either depleted or over-fished.

Nevertheless, incidents of marine mammals beaching themselves or washing-up dead that still baffle scientists have become so common place they barely get news coverage.

The irony is that we still know less about life beneath the surface of the oceans that cover 71% of the Earth then we know about the Moon, having only explored and mapped less than 5% of the ocean.

Critics of the latest ocean development note offshore oil development doesn't need any government help: Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was already expected to climb to 1.8 million barrels per day by the end of 2017 from exisiting sites.

BP, unfettered by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, announced in April it had discovered a new 200-million-barrel oil reserve worth $2 billion about 150 miles off of New Orleans.

Though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has started work on a new five-year Outer Continental Shelf development plan and asked the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Marine Fisheries Service to expedite permits for oil and gas seismic surveys, Zinke expects revisions will take two years.

Legal experts say Trump's potential move to lift the marine sanctuaries status, reverse offshore drilling bans, and redo the 5-year offshore drilling plan are destined for years of legal battles. In fact, environmental and Alaska Native groups have already filed suit to maintain the oil and gas exploration ban in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

And if the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries fails to extend production limits at its upcoming May 25 meeting, oil prices could stay below $45 a barrel and make it uneconomical to drill offshore anytime soon.

Of course, oceans can't be fenced-off and controlled like chunks of protected land. And oceans - like the rest of the natural ecosystem - don't recognize political borders, so what happens offshore of one area rarely stays put. This is illustrated by the fact that the consequences of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still being felt in the Gulf, and coastal Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant triple meltdown after the March 2011 tsunami has pushed radioactive debris all the way to the US West Coast as recently as late last year.

Interestingly, New Zealand and India may be on to something: A total of three rivers have been given the same legal status as a human this year, a status that should be considered for the Earth's oceans given the shear volume of the living biomass and the economic importance of these interconnected bodies of water.

In the meantime, with rising sea levels expected to continue to impact coastal regions - rising eight feet in some locations by the century's end, the oceans may just get the last say.