A presidential commission has modified its proposal for a trust fund that would use up to $4 billion in annual offshore oil and gas royalties to safeguard oceans and coastal areas. The change was to answer governors' fears the idea might spur more drilling off their coasts.
In its final report Monday, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy included language to clarify that the recommended Ocean Policy Trust Fund would not be used to change current government policy on offshore drilling.
"The sole intent of the trust fund is to ensure a dedicated source of funding for improved ocean and coastal management, including the sustainability of renewable resources," the report said. "It is not intended to either promote or discourage offshore uses authorized under existing laws, and the fund itself would not drive activities in offshore waters."
The change was one of a few minor modifications to a. It was included after several governors, including Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Democrat John Baldacci of Maine, expressed fears that drawing on federal royalties from offshore gas exploration could create incentives for more drilling and pumping.
"I support the establishment of an Ocean Policy Trust Fund as well as a thorough evaluation of all available funding sources and partnership opportunities," Schwarzenegger wrote to the commission. The letter insisted, however, that "no incentives for additional offshore oil and gas development be created through the use of funds from these revenue sources."
The proposal for an Ocean Policy Trust Fund is among 212 recommendations the commission made in its 610-page final report, the first federal review of ocean policy in 35 years. By law, President Bush now has 90 days to respond to the recommendations.
The 16-member commission's chairman, retired Navy admiral and former Energy Secretary James Watkins, held a press conference Monday with Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., to urge the Bush administration to act.
"The oceans are saying, 'We've had it, human beings. Give us a break,'" Watkins said.
"We need to treat it today or in 2010 we aren't going to be able to recover," he said.
Watkins delivered the report earlier to administration officials, who welcomed its recommendations in a conference call with reporters. James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration strongly supports the commission and will move quickly to respond.
Asked about the trust fund proposal, Connaughton said, "There are numerous competing proposals for those revenues as well, so we'll have to take a close look at that."
Lawmakers have already introduced bills enshrining various commission recommendations. A Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the report was set Tuesday. Also on the agenda was legislation by Hollings that seeks to establish a new national ocean policy and turn the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into an independent agency separate from the Commerce Department. The co-chairmen of the bipartisan House Oceans Caucus also have introduced a broad bill to improve oceans management that includes many of the commission's recommendations.
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy spent 2½ years studying coastal areas, the Great Lakes and 4.4 million square miles of ocean. It issued a grim assessment, pointing to rising sea temperatures that spread viruses and kill reefs; contaminated seafood; and pollution from urban and farm runoffs that causes algae blooms harmful to ocean life.
Among recommendations were to create a new Cabinet-level National Ocean Council, reform the management of domestic fisheries, give coastal commissions and other local government bodies more authority over growth and double the budget for ocean research.
The commission estimated the cost of its recommendations at $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second year and $3.2 billion annually after that.
The proposed trust fund would draw on $5 billion annually in royalties and leases that now goes to the Treasury from offshore oil and gas drilling. The commission wants to use $4 billion of that; the other $1 billion already is directed to specific purposes. The commission also recommended tapping revenues from any new offshore activities, such as wind energy projects.
Recommendations from the last ocean commission report in 1969 led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970 and coastal zone and fishery management laws in 1976.
By Erica Werner