07.22.10

Whitehouse Introduces Landmark Legislation to Protect Oceans

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I rise to discuss bipartisan legislation coauthored by my friend and fellow New Englander, OLYMPIA SNOWE, to establish a national endowment for the preservation, conservation, and restoration of our Nation's oceans, our coasts, and our Great Lakes. I also wish to take a moment and say a particular thank-you to an original cosponsor of this legislation, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, Senator Rockefeller of West Virginia.

The National Endowment for the Oceans, along with the President's recent Executive order establishing our country's first ever national ocean policy, represent a long overdue and badly needed commitment to our great waters. While the President's national ocean policy specifies national objectives and outlines processes and government structures to restore, protect, and maintain our ocean and coastal resources, the National Endowment for the Oceans will provide the funding to actually achieve those public purposes. The endowment would make grants available to coastal and Great Lakes States, local government agencies, regional planning bodies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations so these entities could embark on projects to learn more about and do a better job of protecting our precious natural resources.

Author C. Clarke once said, "How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly ocean."

Oceans cover three-quarters of our planet's surface, contain 90 percent of our planet's water, and produce more than two-thirds of our planet's oxygen. For as long as mankind has lived on the lands of this planet, oceans have sustained our survival and been part of our identity.

Speaking at a dinner in Newport, RI, in 1961, President Kennedy said, "We are tied to the ocean ..... and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came."

My State, and indeed our country, always have kept a special bond with those great waters.

As a practical matter, my State's economy, as do many others, relies on Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound to provide the jobs for fishing, shipbuilding, tourism, and soon, we hope, wind farming. Across America, coastal waters generate over 50 percent of our Nation's gross domestic product and support more than 28 million jobs.

So we don't call Rhode Island the Ocean State just because of its beautiful coasts and beaches. Although as a sailor and proud ambassador for Rhode Island's tourism industry, I will tell my colleagues that Rhode Island's coast is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We are the Ocean State because from our earliest days we have relied on the ocean and our beloved Narragansett Bay for trade, for food, for jobs, for recreation, and for solace and inspiration.

In part, it is Americans' love of the oceans that drives the need now to protect and restore them. Coastal America is experiencing a huge population boom, leading to more and more construction that puts significant pressure on our natural coastline and our wetlands. Worldwide demand for seafood grows at a pace that our fish stocks cannot keep pace with, and our demand for energy leads us deeper and deeper into the ocean in search of fuel.

For too long, we have been takers from our oceans rather than caretakers of our oceans, and the evidence of our peril is mounting.

From the Arctic Ocean, where ice sheets that have been part of Inuit lore as far back as memory and oral tradition go, are now disappearing, to the tropic seas, where coral reefs that serve as nurseries for ocean life are bleaching and dying, warnings are ringing.

From the far-off waters of the Pacific, where a garbage gyre of accumulated marine litter has grown larger than the State of Texas, to our near coasts such as Rhode Island's own Narragansett Bay where the water temperature has risen 4 degrees in the winter in the last 40 years, an ecosystem shift displacing our historic fisheries, warnings are ringing.

From the top of the oceanic food chain, where pollutants are turning our marine mammals into swimming toxic waste and major pelagic species have suffered a 90-percent population crash, to the very bottom of the food chain where greenhouse gases change the fundamental chemistry of our oceans until they may become too acidic to support the plankton base of the food chain, real warnings are ringing.

Our present day ocean is more acidic today than it has been in 8,000 centuries. A change in ocean chemistry happening so quickly, we don't know if species will be able to adapt in time to survive. Even if we were to act immediately to curb our carbon pollution, the stress on these ecosystems will certainly worsen for some time from what we have already put into our atmosphere.

So from the far Arctic to the warm tropics, from the far ocean to the near coasts, from the top of the food chain to the bottom, real warning bells are ringing.

We can't begin to know what the total effects on our oceans will be, but what we have observed so far must be deeply troubling to any prudent, thoughtful person.

If you have been to the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence, you have seen a large plaque on the wall in the lobby marking the high water mark of the great hurricane of 1938 when a massive storm surge filled downtown Providence and the hotel lobby to a depth of about 5 feet. Sea level rise, another ocean threat, could mean that future storm surges crest much higher, wreaking far worse devastation.

That is a threat that is not unique to Rhode Island. Island nations around the globe are currently preparing for the possibility--really, the inevitability--that they will literally be engulfed by the ocean.

The National Intelligence Council reports that at least 30 American military installations around the world will be underwater if sea levels rise as projected. There is a dangerous feedback loop. The more ice that melts, the greater the danger. As darker ocean water traps rather than reflects the Sun's rays, melting accelerates and leaves us with less and less time to act, less and less time to spare our grandchildren the consequences of our generation's selfishness and folly.

Even seemingly modest changes in temperature, such as the 4 degree increase in Narragansett Bay, wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, causing what amounts to a full ecosystem shift. Anybody who relies on marine life for food, recreation, or a paycheck may soon find their lives changed by the disruption of the ocean's delicate ecosystem.

As a member of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, I find myself habitually frustrated that this "tragedy of the commons" continues to play out, while we stand idly on the sidelines and fail to intervene.

As a source of jobs and economic opportunity, a key element of our American tradition and, truly, the origin of life on our planet, our oceans, and our responsibility for them, ought to occupy a more prominent place on our national agenda.

Yet, our commitment to ocean and coastal preservation is unreliable at best--subject to the volatility of the yearly budget and appropriations process. None other than Robert Ballard, the famed ocean explorer who discovered the Titanic and is current president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, recently lamented that available funds for ocean research often fall far short of desired goals.

As we stand here and BP's oil poisons our Gulf of Mexico, it is time to ask our political system to put the stewardship of our natural resources, our ocean resources, at the forefront of our national agenda. In the past, Congress had established lasting endowments to protect other important American priorities.

Because we believe that a great society must cherish artistic expression and study closely the lessons of history, we established--through the wisdom of Senator Claiborne Pell--the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Because we believe that a great society must connect communities to each other, we established a national highway trust fund. Because we believe that a great society must guarantee its elders a dignified and comfortable retirement after a lifetime of work, we established Social Security. Because we are indeed tied to our great waters, we should now act to establish a national endowment for the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes.

This legislation, as I said, is bipartisan. I thank Senator Olympia Snowe for joining in this effort. This legislation is science based, with much of the money made available through a competitive grant program that will award funding to research undertaken by academic institutions, on-the-ground conservation by nonprofit organizations, and local governments, and protection of critical public infrastructure.

This legislation is cost effective, coordinating existing efforts of Federal, local, and private programs, reducing duplication of research efforts, and crossing political borders to ensure that every dollar is spent with the greatest possible effect.

This legislation is appropriately paid for with revenue generated from the oilspill liability trust fund, Outer Continental Shelf drilling, offshore renewable energy development, and fines collected for violations of the Federal law off our coastline. Put simply, a small portion of the revenue extracted from our oceans and great waters must be reinvested to now protect their long-term viability.

The ocean provides us with great bounty, and we will continue to take advantage of the ocean's bounty, as we should. We will fish, we will sail, and we will trade. We will dispose of waste. We will extract fuel and construct wind farms. We will put pressure on our oceans. Navies and cruise ships, sailboats and supertankers, will plow their surface. We cannot change that part of our relationship with the sea.

What we can change is what we do in return. We can, for the first time, give back. We can become stewards of our oceans--not just takers, but caretakers.

My wife, Sandra, is a marine biologist. We have watched as the University of Rhode Island, home of the Graduate School of Oceanography, has become a world leader in understanding our oceans and how to conserve them.

We are watching GSO's researchers struggle to keep up with rapid changes reshaping the ecosystems they study. This endowment will help science keep pace with change.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration received $167 million for coastal restoration projects under the Recovery Act last year. More than 800 proposals for shovel-ready projects came in, totaling $3 billion. But NOAA could only fund 50. This endowment will help us move forward with those projects that protect our oceans and drive our economy.

The oceans contain the potential for new discoveries, the potential for new jobs, and the potential for new solutions to the emerging crisis off our shores.

But it is time to act. I urge my colleagues to join Senator Snowe and myself in support of this legislation. Let ours be the generation that tips the increasingly troubling balance between mankind and the oceans, from whence we came, a little bit back toward the benefit of our oceans.