Summary of Hearings on Ocean Policy (8-7-06)
On July 27, 2006, House Science Committee Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R - MI) convened the Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Science to discuss H.R. 3835, a bill to merge and provide specific funding for the National Undersea Research Program (NURP) and the Ocean Exploration Program (OEP). NURP funds six regional centers that develop and support marine research technologies, such as undersea laboratories, remotely operated vehicles, and deep water submarines. OEP funds exploration missions to study and map poorly understood regions of the oceans. Ehlers lamented how little people appreciate the oceans and how little we know about the oceans. Only 5% of the ocean floor has been explored, but that small area has yielded a wide range of economic benefits and improved understanding of natural systems. According to Rep. Ehlers, "[NURP] fills the gap between basic marine science [done by the OE program] and the more applied science and information needs of policy makers and resource managers around the country." As such, he advised, it is crucial to ensure that the legislation before the House provides the most effective management of these programs by determining precisely what their benefits are and whether or not they should be merged into a single program. Mr. Ehlers also noted that he is attempting to gain passage of the NOAA Organic Act this year, which will benefit OEP by making exploration explicitly part of NOAA's mission statement.
Rep. Jim Saxton (R - NJ), who introduced H.R. 3835 in September of 2005, testified in favor of the legislation. The first part of the bill would authorize funding for deep sea exploration and related technological advances for 10 years. NOAA would work with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to review grants and share resources. This part of the bill would provide $30.5 million in fiscal year 2006 and increase funding to $70.9 million in fiscal year 2015. The second part of the bill would fund the six regional research facilities at steadily increasing amounts for 10 years. The legislation creates an "Ocean Exploration Technology and Infrastructure Task Force" to coordinate activities. Agencies on the task force would include NSF, the Nation Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Saxton argued that the bill would improve the cooperative capacity of the two programs, ensure a reliable funding stream and provide the stability necessary for program managers to create long-term goals and plans. Because of their divergent missions and organizational structures, fully combining the programs might be unwise.
Each of the other witnesses also supported H.R. 3835.
Codification of NURP and OEP will benefit these programs by providing
more secure funding and clearer legislative guidance that is based
on the programs' existing strengths. However, there was some disagreement
among panelists as to the extent to which the programs should be combined.
Dr. Spinrad favored the creation of a limited cooperative effort by
establishing the task force. Dr. McNutt argued that creating a partnership
between the two programs will facilitate the smooth transfer of research
questions from where they are generated by OEP's exploratory missions
to where they may be answered by NURP's advanced technology programs.
She pointed out that the coordination of these two programs will only
be successful if each retains its basic structure. Rather than prescribing
how this coordination should occur, such as through a task force,
Dr. McNutt advised the committee that NOAA should be granted as much
flexibility as possible. An overly prescriptive bill could hamper
the process and make the resultant program less effective.
The House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans met to gain insight on the current scientific research regarding ocean systems. The topics presented by expert witnesses highlighted how aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are globally intertwined through complex ocean processes. Each panelist testified on a range of phenomena occurring in the ocean, from ocean circulation to bacterial processes. With ocean and fishing issues hitting close to home, Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (D-MD) welcomed the experts by expressing his desire to learn about the current status of our oceans, "I understand the appeal of potentially finding life in distant planets and outer space. But, I also want to understand life on this planet."
Dr. Terrence Joyce of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) opened the testimony with remarks on ocean circulation and how it affects the climate. Joyce spoke about short term and long term climate variability events, like the 2-5 year El Nino cycle and the longer 20-30 year Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Joyce focused on the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) because it is a climate variability occurrence the U.S. is notably faced with, but whose time scale is poorly defined. This oscillation has positive and negative phases that strongly impact the U.S.; the negative phase increases hurricane intensity, driving hurricanes westward toward the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, while the positive phase hurricanes curve up into the North Atlantic Ocean . Joyce commented that though scientists understand how major ocean circulations, like the Great Ocean Conveyor, affect climate change, more research is needed. Currently, Joyce and other members of WHOI are working in an international collaborative effort to build an ocean observing system that would investigate future climate changes. Joyce concluded that federal support in such endeavors is crucial for understanding the ocean's role in climate change.
Also from WHOI, Dr. Rob Evans spoke about the seafloor and how it influences oceanic events, like the December 2004 tsunami. Many deep ocean and near-shore seafloor events are sporadic and "occur on timescales well beyond those of politics," but have been able to be observed through technological advances over the past decade. These advances allow for the monitoring of beach and barrier island morphology and for the exploration of offshore methane, which can provide information about possible methane slumps that could cause tsunamis. Evans emphasized that the seafloor is a segment of the earth "that remains largely unexplored, yet one to which all our futures are intimately tied."
Dr. James Hollibaugh from the University of Georgia testified next, giving the subcommittee information about oceanic bacteria. In his testimony, Hollibaugh declared that currently there are 1 billion metric tons of bacterioplankton live in the ocean, which are import because they break down organic matter and pollutants, and degrade hazardous spilled hydrocarbons. Hollibaugh also discussed how the bacteria affects fisheries, where the "microbial loop" (food chain) could ultimately be destroyed if bacteria is removed from the loop. Hollibaugh suggested that further investigations into the importance of bacteria been conducted so that their role in the ecosystem as well as human health could be better understood.
Dr. Kevin Sellner of the Chesapeake Research Consortium spoke to the committee about human-induced and natural harmful algal blooms (HAB). As a direct result of water physics, these blooms occur in all reaches of the ocean, from near-shore coastal zones to the open ocean. In the Gulf of Mexico, toxic HABs have killed whales and have caused paralysis in humans and sea lions, otters and clams have died from toxic blooms off of California's coast. Sellner explained that these blooms have resulted from a high influx of excessive nutrients and from poor mixing of the waters. Because of these causes, Sellner claims that HABs can be controlled and intervention steps can be taken; for example clay applications can reduce HABs and beach closures can reduce the risk of the toxic algae to human health. When Gilgrest (R-MD) asked if there has been an increase in HABs, Sellner responded "yes, a substantial global increase. More people, more waste."
Dr. Mark Ohman from the University of California testified about the interactions of physical and biological processes affecting the ecosystem of California. In his testimony, Ohman explained that California has a high productive marine ecosystem that supports important fisheries, feeds marine mammals and birds, and houses 5 national marine sanctuaries. However, Ohman suggested that the current warming trend will put California's marine ecosystem at risk because zooplankton that is vital to the environment will decline by 70% if the temperature increases by 1.2-1.4°C.
The last panelist to testify was Dr. Steven Murawski from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Murawski talked about marine ecosystems and how harvesting fish affects the distributions and abundances of fish species. Murawski explained that scientists currently know how harvesting, climate, and human impacts affect marine ecosystems. Also, there is technology that allows for the mapping of marine habitats, so that fishing impacts can be further understood.
The House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans held a legislative hearing to consider H.R. 50, an "organic act" for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In his opening remarks, Resources Committee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) expressed confidence in working with the House Science Committee to pass a NOAA organic act, which would, for the first time, define and codify NOAA's core mission and functions. Since its creation in 1970, NOAA has been operating without the guidance of a congressional mandate, limiting the agency's ability to provide authority and leadership in ocean science research and resource management. In past years, disputes among the House, Senate and Administration have stalled the passage of a NOAA act, but Gilchrest said he hopes that this year, recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy will likely bolster wide-spread support of the bill. At the hearing, Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), who sponsored H.R. 50, presented his bill alongside alternative proposals from the Administration, the Ocean Commission, and other stakeholder groups.
According to Ehlers' testimony, H.R. 50 gives NOAA a three-pronged mission:
Under the guidance of Representative Ehlers, the House Science Committee
successfully passed their portion of H.R. 50 on May 18th, the day
before the Resources Committee hearing. Although H.R. 50 has gained
much support as in the House Science Committee, H.R. 50 only codifies
NOAA's science and research capabilities. Because resource management
issues do not fall under the Science Committee's jurisdiction, the
bill leaves out some of NOAA's functions that are most critical to
addressing ocean ecosystem health, such as fisheries assessment, coastal
zone management, and ocean mapping and charting.
Although H.R. 50 establishes a broader mission than previous legislation moved by the House, NOAA's top authority Admiral Lautenbacher testified that H.R. 50 reads "more like an authorization bill than a true organic act." Presenting the Administration's proposal, he suggested H.R. 50 not highlight the importance of specific programs such as the National Weather Service or data-gathering satellite missions. Lautenbacher also recommended that the act be amended to allow NOAA to decide its own restructuring scheme and to expand the scope of the NOAA Advisory Board, which the bill also seeks to establish. According to Lautenbacher, setting such specific guidelines would restrict NOAA's ability to respond to changes in science and policy in the long-term. The Administration's proposal would instead grant NOAA "general authority" to operate partnerships, enter into contracts, and conduct education and outreach programs.
As Committee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) noted part-way through the hearing, a fundamental disagreement persisted between the Administration and Congress over how prescriptive or flexible a NOAA organic act should be, a dilemma Gilchrest said the committee must take care and time to work out.
Other witnesses offered insight into this debate as they presented their recommendations for codifying NOAA's resource management responsibilities. Andrew Rosenberg, who testified on behalf of the Ocean Commission, endorsed the Ehlers' version of the organic act, stating that it struck the right balance between prescriptiveness and flexibility. In order to address the remaining 200 recommendations of the Commission report, the NOAA organic act must "set a strong direction for U.S. ocean policy, establish NOAA's position as the Nation's lead ocean agency, and motivate restructuring and refocusing of NOAA to enable it to meet the challenges ahead." In fact, Rosenberg suggested that the Resources Committee should add to H.R. 50 a mandate for integrating atmospheric, land and water science and policy functions under an "ecosystem-based" management approach.
Arthur Nowel, who represented a major oceanographic society, agreed that NOAA's overarching mission should bring together the agency's myriad programs around the mission of eco-system based management. In addition, NOAA should be tasked with expanding the scientific basis for ocean management, including life-cycle assessments and human activities, and bolstering higher education programs. Tony MacDonald of the Coastal States Organization, also supported the consideration of adding a definition of the ecosystem-based approach, and included in his testimony specific suggestions on how to word NOAA's mission and purposes. In affect, this wording would establish a mandate for NOAA around a service-based approach that promoted sustainable development, sound data collection and management, and strong interagency, private, and international partnerships.
For the purpose of public safety, the National Weather Service is the only program specifically mandated in H.R. 50. Following the testimony, Chairman Gilchrest asked the panelists whether the organic act could establish primary goals that would be compatible with maintaining other important programs, such as the National Environmental Satellite, the National Fisheries Service, and the Ocean Service. Rosenberg responded that in order to effectively sustain these programs, the act must do more than simply suggest these programs be more integrated, and provide a mandate for how such programs service NOAA's overall mission.
In closing the hearing, Chairman Gilchrest reiterated his optimism
about advancing H.R. 50 through the House, but also cautioned the
public to "have a sense of patient urgency with Congress,"
in drafting the legislation to address all aired concerns. He added,
"we (members of Congress) are like an aircraft carrier moving
ourselves forward using canoe paddles," on this issue.
Members from the House Resources Fisheries and Oceans Subcommittee invited ocean research experts and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of the Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Navy to discuss H.R. 1489, the Coastal Ocean Observation System Integration and Implementation Act of 2005. The bill, introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) would authorize $138 million to NOAA over four years to establish a Coastal Ocean Observation System. Gilchrest called the bill "a first step in an inclusive process that I hope will result in a more cohesive and comprehensive approach to coastal and ocean observation systems."
In the first panel of testimony, agency officials discussed who the key federal players should be in an integrated ocean observation system, and how legislation might help to expand and coordinate the myriad, fragmented data systems already in operation. NOAA currently manages 100 data systems according to Spinrad, Assistant Administrator of NOAA's National Ocean Service. The Minerals Management Service also collects deep water data from oil and gas rigs and shares the data with other U.S. agencies and Mexico, according to Chris Kearney who heads DOI's office of policy and international affairs. Kearney said that the U.S. Geological Survey, which already provides valuable information to resource managers, should play a leading role in the Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS).
According to Spinrad's recommendations, legislation must recognize foremost that an IOOS depends on connectivity and interoperability among agencies, private partners, and others. Spinrad and Kearney both recommended that the legislation should identify NOAA as the lead agency to provide oversight and implementation planning.
Addressing potential data access concerns, Gilchrest asked Robert Winokur, a U.S. Navy Oceanographer, how national security concerns might affect how information is disclosed from the Department of Defense. Winokur testified that with an early understanding of the relevant security concerns, the impact of these concerns would be minimized. He added that DOD would be most likely to withhold underwater acoustic and geophysical data, particularly if the observation equipment was near a military facility.
Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked panelists whether the legislation offers adequate funding to provide an optimal baseline for enhancing observations. Agency officials responded that the proposed $130 million is adequate under the assumption that a baseline of funding already exists through current programs and technological investments. Winokur suggested, however, that funding be phased in more gradually, as elements of the system become viable, maximizing the amount of investment that goes into the communication, data management, and data access components, which he called the system's "backbone." In addition, federal programs should be expanded as necessary to increase data accuracy and interoperability.
Ocean research experts who testified in the second panel provided a more critical assessment of H.R. 1489. These witnesses agreed the legislation was a good first step, but they pressed hard for increased funding and better recognition of regional oceanographic associations. In addition to increased funding, the legislation should allow for more effective transfer of resources to state and private research and education programs. Debra Hernandez, from South Carolina's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, said a focus on regional leadership is important to enhance the observation system at the resource level, and would engage a broader constituency. Without it, the legislation seems to centralize the process within NOAA. Additional recommendations addressed a need for the legislation to clarify the system "units"- whether they be individual agencies, regions, or federally-funded programs- emphasize near-shore and estuarine data, and initiate a formal K-12 education program.
While all witnesses agreed that regional associations, such as Ocean US, the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association, and the Coastal States Organization, should be central to the system's structure, panelists could not provide Gilchrest with any specific language that would satisfy this recommendation. Fred Grassle from Rutgers University offered that language could somehow identify or formalize regional sectors. William Reay, Manager of the Chesapeake Bay Reserve, suggested that the system should target end-users, rather than other federal or state participants, in order to shift the focus back to the resource level.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff and Amanda Schneck 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 10, 2005.