In another strike at his predecessor’s legacy, and one that could have long-term consequences for New England, President Trump this week rescinded an executive order by President Obama that established the first national ocean policy, which made protecting coastal waters and the Great Lakes a priority.
Trump said his executive order would cut bureaucracy and benefit business, while environmental advocates denounced his decision, saying it strongly favors commercial interests over conservation.
Trump’s order could alter New England’s plans to protect the Gulf of Maine and other waters in the region. It replaces the National Ocean Council, which brought together a host of federal departments and committees that work on ocean issues, with a new “streamlined” committee that will focus on science and technology and resource management.
It will also eliminate nine regional planning bodies around the country, which the White House called “unnecessary.”
“President Trump is rolling back excessive bureaucracy created by the previous administration . . . and regulatory uncertainty, which serve as headwinds for America’s ocean industries,” White House officials said in a statement.
Officials at the regional offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declined to comment.
“I’m still digesting this,” said Michael Pentony, the agency’s regional administrator.
His predecessor, John Bullard, said Trump’s executive order “looks like an erasure of everything Obama [did] and substituting something quite similar in its place.”
Bullard noted that Obama’s national ocean policy created a website that for the first time aggregated all kinds of data for the Northeast, making it easy to search for information about water quality, recreational fishing issues, and endangered species, among many other matters. It was unclear what would become of that project and other data-sharing efforts.
“The Obama-era ocean policy was a whipping boy of the right, who castigated it as government overreach, when in fact it was a way for data to be gathered and mapped . . . in a more science-based manner,” said Bullard, who retired this year. “It was very inclusive and democratic, with a small ‘d.’”
Environmental advocates said Trump’s order shifts the balance of ocean policy from ecosystem protection and sustainable fishing to commercial use, expanding on Trump’s previous executive order to allow drilling for oil and gas off much of the nation’s coast.
They pointed to the stark difference in language between Obama’s 2010 order and Trump’s replacement, which he issued Tuesday.
Obama’s order began by invoking the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, saying “the resulting environmental crisis is a stark reminder of how vulnerable our marine environments are, and how much communities and the nation rely on healthy and resilient ocean and coastal ecosystems.”
Trump’s order, by contrast, begins by noting that ocean industries employ millions of Americans and states that “domestic energy production from federal waters strengthens the nation’s security and reduces reliance on imported energy.”
Trump’s order also omits references to climate change, ocean acidification, conservation, biological diversity, and social justice.
Obama’s priorities included the need to increase “conservation and sustainable uses” of ocean resources; whereas, Trump focused on the need to “facilitate the economic growth of coastal communities and promote ocean industries.”
“Trump has squarely put his thumb on the scale of ocean resource exploitation, at what I fear will be a terrible loss to our precious ocean environment,” said Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “Make no mistake about it, the repeal is another attack in the Trump administration’s all-out assault on the nation’s public lands and oceans for the sake of private exploitation and profit.”
Hallie Templeton, a senior oceans campaigner at Friends of the Earth, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, called Trump’s order “devastating.”
“From drilling to pollution, the Trump administration puts our communities and marine species under more threat,” she said. “Coastal communities that rely on healthy oceans for jobs, food, and cultural activities will undoubtedly suffer.”
But those who represent commercial fishermen and others said such ecological concerns were exaggerated.
“Claims that the ocean is being abandoned are not supported by the facts,” said Drew Minkiewicz, an attorney at the Fisheries Survival Fund in Washington, D.C., which represents the scallops industry.
He supported the elimination of the regional planning bodies, which he argued had failed in its mission to bring together competing interests, such as offshore wind-farm developers and fishermen, who have been at odds over plans to build turbines off Martha’s Vineyard.
Eliminating the groups “will not lead to less coordination amongst the federal government because they were not doing their stated job,” he said.
Officials at the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore drilling and wind companies, praised Trump’s order, saying Obama’s policies were “uber-bureaucratic” and “caused consternation, uncertainty, and concern for the offshore energy industry.”
“This renewed broad vision will hopefully encourage productive partnerships, recognizing a wide variety of ocean uses, all leading to increased economic, environmental, and energy security,” said Randall Luthi, the group’s president, in a statement.David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.