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Panel Urges Oceans Trust Fund

Citing a dire need to protect ocean resources from exploitation and pollution, a presidential commission is urging creation of a federal oceans trust fund from oil and gas royalties.

The recommendation is one of dozens in the commission's nearly 500-page draft report, the first such sweeping review of U.S. ocean policy in 35 years.

The Ocean Policy Trust Fund — similar to the Highway Trust Fund for transportation projects — would come from the annual $5 billion in bonus bid and royalty payments made to the U.S. Treasury for offshore oil and gas drilling, and from "new uses of offshore waters," the commission said.

Up to $4 billion of that would be fair game for the fund, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy said in a report issued Tuesday, along with "any future rents from permitted uses" or "newer emerging uses in federal waters." The panel said about $1 billion intended for land and water conservation, national historic preservation and coastal states would be unaffected.

"This is a crossroads moment, a moment of historic opportunity," said James Watkins, the retired admiral who chairs the commission created by Congress and the White House in 2000. He said it was important for federal government to require the new ocean protections but "avoid creating unfunded mandates" passed on to states and local governments.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry unveiled his plan for cleaner oceans Tuesday. An accompanying press release took the opportunity to blast the Bush Administration, stating "time after time the president has sided with polluters to the detriment of public health and safety across the country.

"In three short years, this president has put the brakes on 30 years of environmental progress," Kerry said. "He thinks that empty slogans like 'The Clear Skies Initiative' or 'Healthy Forest' will make people forget what they're really doing. They use the same tired old argument that you can't have a clean environment if you want a strong economy. Well they're wrong. We can have both."

The commissioners spent 2½ years studying coastal areas, the Great Lakes and 4.4 million square miles of ocean — an area nearly a quarter larger than all 50 states combined, because it includes the exclusive economic zone stretching about 200 miles from the continent and Pacific and Atlantic islands.

The panel urged new "ecosystem-based" ways of managing that put the needs of nature ahead of political boundaries, while emphasizing that people's needs must also be considered.

The commission estimated the cost of all its recommended actions at $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second year and $3.2 billion each year after that. But it pointed to annual ocean-related economic activity of $700 billion in goods that ports handle, $50 billion from fishing and trade, $11 billion from cruise ships and passengers — and $25 billion to $40 billion from offshore oil and gas production.

"If our report is adopted, the payoff will be great," Watkins said in a video accompanying the report. "It's now obvious that ocean resources are not limitless, nor are ocean waters capable of continual self-cleansing. The point is this: It's up to us to find ways to use and enjoy the oceans in a sustainable way."

The commission found overexploited fish stocks and other depleted marine resources; the loss or declining resilience of habitat; and pervasive water contamination. It recommends more ocean-related education for schoolchildren, doubled federal research and increased emphasis on scientific-based decision-making.

It also advises:

  • Improved coordination of ocean policy in the White House, including a new Cabinet-level National Ocean Council, new regional councils and a Presidential Council of Advisers on Ocean Policy.
  • Reorganization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • Better data-sharing among national and international ocean observing systems.
The draft report was given to governors and others for comment. A final blueprint is to be delivered to Congress and the White House later this year.

"No report has generated as much talk and anticipation in the ocean community as this one," said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., whose legislation created the commission.

The last such report was released in 1969. Worried about foreign fishing fleets close to U.S. coasts, the first ocean commission prompted creation of NOAA in 1970 and coastal zone and fishery management laws in 1976.

Watkins said he and the other 15 commissioners focused on workable solutions, touring dozens of sites and listening to hundreds of people talk about how oceans affect their lives.

"Fundamentally, the message we heard boiled down to this: The oceans and coasts are in trouble, and we need to change the way we manage them," he said. "Perhaps most important, people must grasp the vital role oceans play in their lives and livelihoods, and the profound impact they themselves have on the oceans and the coasts."

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