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New Year, New Big Ocean Win

The new year started with a major ocean win that you may have missed. Buried in between the holiday downtime and the start of a new year, the White House level Ocean Policy Committee (OPC) officially became formalized into law as a part of the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act on New Year’s Day. The OPC is critical for interagency coordination on ocean and coastal priorities related to science and management.

Solidifying an executive-level committee to manage the environmental and economic health of our ocean is a long-standing recommendation of the ocean community. Dating back to recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (2004) and the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force under President Obama, this is the first of such expert panel recommendations to be passed into law. Ocean Conservancy has long championed federal ocean policy, science and comprehensive ocean management and has worked for more than a decade to support the policies of the U.S. Commission Report.

Prior to this legislation, this critical interagency body advancing a national ocean policy was supported only by presidential executive orders that could be repealed or replaced by any incoming president. A similar body was established by President Obama named the National Ocean Council, which President Trump later termed the Ocean Policy Committee in a 2018 executive order. While the respective administrative policies reflect distinctly different viewpoints, the structure of the committee remained nearly identical. The similarity of the committee structure supporting both administrations’ policies reflects the ocean community’s consensus perspective that maintaining consistency and the capacity to coordinate ocean policy over time is critical to effective ocean and coastal management. With this new legislation, the OPC is permanent and will require an act of Congress to alter, ensuring a stable and consistent structure that elevates ocean policy at the White House.

Structure of the Ocean Policy Committee

The Ocean Policy Committee, co-chaired by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, will coordinate agency action to implement high-level administration ocean and coastal-related priorities focusing on guiding agencies to work together on common goals. All federal agencies with a stake in ocean and coastal management make up this Committee including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Coast Guard, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and National Science Foundation. As outlined in the new legislation, the OPC will operate with two subcommittees. The Ocean Resource Management Subcommittee will coordinate policy related to ocean resource management across the federal government. The Ocean Science and Technology Subcommittee will coordinate ocean science and technology and oversee a National Ocean Mapping, Exploration and Characterization Council that has broad community and bipartisan support.

With the passage of the new legislation, the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) will also now operate under the OPC. The NOPP, led by the Secretary of the Navy in coordination with NOAA, will work to facilitate partnerships between federal agencies, academia, industry and non-governmental organizations to advance ocean research. The bill also reestablishes the Ocean Research Advisory Panel, recommending members be comprised of academia, industry, state, Tribes and the National Academies with expertise in marine science, technology and policy to provide expertise to the OPC.

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© Ocean Conservancy

Leveraging the OPC to Build Back Better

The Biden-Harris administration can efficiently leverage the OPC structure to address policy priorities related to marine conservation, justice, sustainable use of ocean resources, ocean science related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and other priorities as may be directed through executive action. The structure is familiar to staff across federal agencies at the headquarters and regional levels, thereby allowing the Biden-Harris administration to immediately advance its ocean and coastal priorities through nationally consistent but regionally tailored action.

Advancing and leveraging the OPC, the Biden-Harris administration can move forward on its Build Back Better objectives on climate, justice and economy. Specifically, the OPC will be a key coordination mechanism for policy objectives related to climate-ready infrastructure and doubling offshore wind, both of which have the added benefit of boosting the economy. With regard to offshore wind specifically—which is a critical piece of mitigating climate change and moving us toward a clean energy future—the OPC and its two subcommittees can drive policy alignment that would advance the Biden-Harris administration’s wind energy agenda efficiently and sustainably, and in a way that maximizes coordination across agencies with jurisdiction over ocean resources. The strong science and technology components of the OPC, including ocean exploration and characterization to better understand the ocean and climate change, means that ocean management decisions will be rooted in the best available science.

Ocean Conservancy thanks the House and Senate ocean champions for their work to codify this important ocean coordinating body. We are excited to work with the Biden-Harris administration to realize the full potential of the OPC and advance solutions for the health of our ocean and communities.

All in all, a very nice new year’s win indeed.

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