The spill began with a bang. On April 20, 2010 a jet of natural gas surged to the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Fumes filled the air, signaling something was amiss—and then the rig exploded in a smoky blaze, killing eleven people on board. In the three months that followed, an estimated 134 million gallons of oil gushed into the gulf, devastating marine life—from tiny microorganisms to sea birds and dolphins.
“We're still feeling the effects today,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Amidst the cleanup, then-President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13547, emphasizing the vital need for ocean and Great Lake stewardship. It established the first National Ocean Policy, noting that the Deepwater spill “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.”
But on June 19, President Donald Trump issued another Executive Order, replacing the Ocean Policy with one that conspicuously leaves out this disaster, and instead focuses on economy, security, and energy, as well as “streamlining” current policies. It places strong responsibility on states to take action and eliminates the requirement for involving indigenous groups in decision making.
How this latest act will materialize remains unclear. “The devil is in the details and in the implementation,” says Margaret Spring, chief conservation officer of Monterey Bay Aquarium.
But the EO follows a shift away from environment to economy. “Our U.S. ocean policy has really changed from one that was focused on stewardship of our valuable and vulnerable ocean life to resource use and extraction,” says Alison Chase, senior policy analyst in the Oceans Division for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
What's more, the order eliminates the inclusivity of indigenous voices in decision making. “The people who are on the front lines of climate change are indigenous peoples,” says Kelsey Leonard, tribal co-lead of the former Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body. “So the removal of language that references climate change—not only in this executive order, but throughout this administration—is an affront to tribal sovereignty.”
Where Did the National Ocean Policy Come From?
For decades, humans have seen the ocean as an endless resource—and an easy place to hide our messes. We have dumped our waste in its watery depths, from industrial and radioactive materials to municipal trash and sewage sludge. We've harvested its many residents, causing near collapse of many food webs. We've traversed its surface to the point that its animals are in need of earplugs.
The 2010 EO drew attention to this precarious situation. Though it was sparked by the Deepwater Horizon spill, it came after a decade of study initiated by the Oceans Act of 2000, which updated the outdated 1969 Stratton Commission report on the oceans that, among other things, established the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Oceans Act was an effort to “modernize” this policy, says Spring, who was instrumental in penning the bill. Under the new law, then-President George Bush appointed members to form the U.S. Commission of Ocean Policy, which included industry representatives. Along with the Pew Ocean Commission—a conservation-focused initiative—the duo was tasked with figuring out what needed to be done for the deep blue sea.
“In the end what was remarkable was that both reports were entirely consistent in their recommendations,” says Spring. And the National Ocean Policy was intended to make those recommendations a reality.
Among its priorities was the need for coordination between state and federal agencies in marine decision making. It also embraced the idea of protecting whole ecosystems, “with the recognition of the fact that fish aren't just staying in one area offshore,” says Chase.
Experts are concerned that the latest EO largely ignores the important balance between the many groups clamoring for their chance in the waves—oil interests, renewable energy, indigenous rights, coastal community needs, recreational fishing, and more. But for industry and economy to flourish, warns Chase, you must have a healthy ocean.
In an interest of streamlining, the order eliminates the framework established to help agencies balance this multitude of interests and navigate the inevitable “bureaucratic knots” between agencies, says Rosenberg. But this move is unlikely to have its intended result: “What I would predict is it will make it more difficult for agencies to work together rather than less,” he says.
A whale shark swims beside a plastic bag in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen. Although whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, they're still threatened by ingesting small bits of plastic.
As Chase explains, the new order abolishes regional planning bodies, which have been working with the federal government to manage local waters. The new order “takes all the responsibility and foists it on the states,” she says.
The states now must organize and invite the federal bodies to participate. And Chase notes, at a recent Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting—held just days after the new EO was signed—there was some discussion that federal participation may now be limited. As Chase explains: The federal government could help with implementation “except in efforts to identify important ecological areas.”
Federal and state agencies have made a lot of progress in this area, she says. “So it's particularly disappointing to see them walk away from that.”
There is also no longer a requirement to have tribal or indigenous group representatives on any newly formed committees. “The level of coordination and involvement and equity of decision making for indigenous peoples in this process was unprecedented around the world,” says Leonard, who served on the planning body on behalf of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “And that no longer exists. It was stripped with one stroke of the pen.”
Leonard sums up her reaction to the order in one word: “disappointment.”
Though much is yet to be seen on the details of the Trump administration's ocean policies, the new EO comes after months of rolling back and loosening environmental regulations and policies, often at the request of industry.
An Executive Order President Trump enacted in March of last year called for reduction of “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.” It targeted regulations the Obama administration put in place to combat climate change and downplayed dire impacts of carbon emissions. Among other acts, the EO lifted the 2016 freeze on coal leasing on federal lands and kicked off efforts to rescind the EPA's Clean Power Plan. As a result of that order, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement overhauled two rules put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster to prevent similar spills in the future.
In January, following an energy-focused EO, the administration announced plans to open nearly all of the United States coastline for offshore oil and gas drilling. It would make an unprecedented 90 percent of the outer continental shelf available for leasing. Many coastal states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, and Virginia, immediately protested the move.
And now, following the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, three marine monuments are under review to potentially be opened for commercial fishing: Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts.
Just this past June, the U.S. also refused to agree to the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter, dedicated to combating ocean pollution. One study estimated that somewhere between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic poured into the ocean from coastal countries in 2010 alone—and its impacts are deadly. For evidence, look no further than the pilot whale that died from eating more than 17 pounds of plastic.
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill proposing changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which regulates American fisheries ensuring a sustainable level of marine life removal. If passed, many conservation groups fear the changes will undermine the strong management policies.
Looking Toward the Future
It is, however, too soon to bemoan the loss of environmental protections from the new EO, Spring says. The order does emphasize support of data in decision making, and some coordination between organizing bodies. And despite the order, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council has signaled their interest in continuing their work.
“I don't sit here without hope that we can continue the good work that we have built and the foundation that we've laid over the past eight years,” says Leonard. But “that's not for tribal nations to determine.”
And the litany of unanswered questions is lengthy. As Spring says: “I think what they say is they'll make decisions on science, but what does that mean to them? And how do they interpret that? And whose science? And how is it reviewed?”
Under the new EO, agencies have 90 days to review regulations and policies. But until those reports come in, it's still possible for the public to help shape the future of ocean science, Spring emphasizes.
Just days after the EO signing, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy quietly released its draft plan for America's Oceans, laying out the topics the government deems important to allocate money and expert time. Like the EO, security and economics feature prominently, and mentions of “climate change” are absent. But the report does acknowledge the need for “models of the Earth system,” Spring notes.
Most importantly, it's open for public comment until August 27.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Deepwater Horizon spill took place in August; it took place in April.