Reporting from Washington — President Obama on Monday is set to create a national stewardship policy for America's oceans and Great Lakes, including a type of zoning that could dramatically rebalance the way government regulates offshore drilling, fishing and other marine activities.
The policy would not create new regulations or immediately alter drilling plans or fisheries management. But White House documents and senior administration officials suggest it would strengthen conservation and ecosystem protection.
The initiative culminates more than a year of work by a federal Ocean Policy Task Force, which Obama established last year. After the task force releases its final recommendations, the president is expected to sign an executive order directing federal agencies to adopt and implement them.
Calling the BP oil spill ravaging the Gulf of Mexico a "stark reminder of how vulnerable our marine environments are," the recommendations center on creating a National Ocean Council to coordinate regulation of oceans and the Great Lakes, and on a principle of "ecosystem-based management" for marine areas.
The council would include top federal scientists and officials from a variety of agencies, including national security experts, environmental regulators and managers of ocean commerce.
The recommendations embrace a controversial practice called marine spatial planning, a zoning process of sorts that seeks to manage waters in the way some cities manage factories and strip malls. The process could result in confining activities such as drilling, shipping and conservation to areas the planners deem best-suited to each use.
Nine regional groups — consisting of state, federal and tribal officials — would draft plans for conservation and use of ocean resources that would have to be approved by the National Ocean Council. Federal agencies have agreed to abide by the plans.
If the Great Lakes regional body designated certain lake areas for offshore wind farms, for example, the Interior Department would agree to approve wind farms only within those areas.
The same would be true for any new offshore drilling projects. Currently, Interior officials develop drilling plans under a public comment process within their department.
In Southern California, the heavy focus on "ecosystem-based management" could cause the U.S. Navy to retool its fleet deployment, with an eye on how its operations affect water quality or whales.
The recommendations do not specify their effect on offshore drilling. Administration officials said the new policy would not prejudge or conflict with future findings of the bipartisan commission Obama had charged with investigating the oil gusher.
But the administration says coordinated, stewardship-heavy ocean management is likely to "really change" practices in nearly every marine activity, drilling included. The final task force report predicts that the changes would help restore fish populations, protect human health and "rationally allow" for ocean uses such as energy production.
"This sets the nation on a path toward much more comprehensive planning to both conservation and sustainable use of [ocean] resources," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy had not been officially announced.
The first draft of the policy, released in September, drew heavy criticism from some quarters, including industry and recreational anglers concerned that sport fishing might be restricted or banned.
After a deluge of criticism and meetings with fishing and boating groups, the administration modified the recommendations to emphasize the importance of fishing and ocean recreation, calling them "critical to the economic, social and cultural fabric of our country."
The recommendations do not include curbs on recreational fishing. But the mere prospect of marine spatial planning has drawn skepticism from ocean users.
Oil and gas officials are concerned too. They have repeatedly urged the administration not to adopt any planning process that could restrict offshore drilling.
Last fall, for example, a representative of the American Petroleum Institute testified at a task force field hearing, "The oil and natural gas industry's presence in the Gulf [of Mexico] has successfully coexisted with other ocean uses like tourism, fishing, the U.S. military and shipping for many years, demonstrating that the current system of governance works well."
The new plan would emphasize nine areas under the broad banner of marine stewardship and conservation, including improved scientific research and mapping; helping coastal communities adapt to climate change and ocean acidification, particularly in the Arctic; and enhancing water quality on land to boost ocean water quality.