There are right ways and wrong ways to protect the natural environment, and the Obama administration recently demonstrated how to go about it the right way.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently announced plans to expand two national marine sanctuaries on the northern California Coast. If approved, the proposed expansion and existing sanctuaries will jointly protect more than a third of the state’s offshore waters from oil drilling, seabed mining and ocean dumping.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who retired from Congress this year, correctly said “This area is a national treasure.” She and Sen. Barbara Boxer, a fellow California Democrat, spent the last eight years fruitlessly seeking congressional approval for its expanded protection.
The Obama administration is handling the matter well in several ways. First, it’s starting by focusing on an area truly worth protecting. The stretch of coastline in question is spectacular, and spectacularly productive. It alternates sandy inlets with timber-backed rocky cliffs, stormy in winter and shrouded in cold fog regularly throughout the year. The waters teem with sea life: fish, sea birds and marine mammals alike.
Though conservationists have focused on banning oil drilling on the coastline, the fact is that there probably isn’t all that much oil to be found, and whatever there is can be replaced by oil from far less sensitive places. In our endless debates about oil development, we sometimes forget that by developing the resource in less critical places, we can afford to protect the locales that matter most. Development is less hazardous onshore than offshore. Hydraulic fracturing allows much more production from onshore sources, and every barrel that it produces in places like the New Mexico desert or the North Dakota plains is a barrel we don't need to take from offshore sources, whether in the Gulf of Mexico or along the California shoreline.
Conservation, done correctly, focuses first on the places we most ought to conserve. In this case, the administration has clearly chosen one of those places.
Moreover, Obama did not opt to just expand the marine sanctuaries by executive order, despite lobbying from California’s congressional delegation for him to do so. Though such an expansion is within the president’s legal rights, it would have produced a reflexive backlash. The Los Angeles Times reported that congressional Republicans have warned the Obama administration against exercising its powers that way.
Instead, the NOAA will employ the standard procedures outlined in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. This process includes public hearings that will begin this month; it takes about two years overall. Though it may be slow, the process will give anyone with an objection a chance to air it. Chances are that any objections will be few and relatively minor. Congressional approval is not required.
In the meantime, no one will drill or mine the stretch of seabed at issue anyway, so coastline advocates won’t lose anything in those respects regardless of the delay. When the sanctuaries are approved, as they are almost certain to be, the biggest and earliest practical impact will be in the mundane arena of pollution control. Ships will be required to strictly control their waste and contaminants while passing through the area. Nobody will object to that.
If the day should ever come when the nation believes it has no better place to drill or mine for resources than this beautiful stretch of coast, Congress can always intervene to permit such action under whatever conditions it chooses. Oil drilling would not necessarily hurt the region’s wildlife. But the day for that debate, if it ever comes at all, is far off.
The administration was smart not to provoke a needless fight, especially over an area that most people would agree deserves to be protected - both for the aquatic creatures that live there and the terrestrial voyagers who occasionally visit.