Lautenberg bill on ocean study released by committee

A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to address rising acidity levels in the ocean caused by burning fossil fuels cleared a big hurdle Tuesday.

The bill was released by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Lautenberg hopes it is heading for a full Senate vote, whether it stands alone or is tacked onto other legislation, before the year is out.

The scientific research on the issue is in its infancy, but there is growing evidence that carbon dioxide created from fossil-fuel combustion is making the world’s oceans more acidic. Lautenberg said this could threaten marine life and the fishing industry.

“Changes in ocean chemistry, caused by greenhouse gases, will increasingly affect our food supply and the health of our oceans,” Lautenberg said.

Laboratory studies show higher acidity levels especially affect shellfish, and Lautenberg notes New Jersey’s scallop and ocean clams industries generate
$121 million per year.

The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2007 includes $30 million to study the problem. The bill sets up a committee of federal agencies led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to coordinate research and monitoring of the oceans. From this, a national plan to assess the impacts and recommend solutions would be drafted.

As high school students learn, acidity is measured by a pH test, with a score of 1 being very acidic and 14 being very alkaline. The pH level of the ocean was at 8.2 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution but has now dropped to 8.1. Even such a small change can affect sensitive corals and planktons. A larger increase in acidity could cause shell erosion in species such as scallops and surf clams.

The problem is that carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. The NOAA says ocean acidity has increased 30 percent in the last century and it projects that by the end of this century, carbon dioxide emissions would result in the lowest levels of ocean pH in 20 million years. Ocean acidity can also rise and fall with natural events including volcanic activity and meteor strikes.

“My legislation would provide the needed research to analyze and address the environmental and economic impacts of ocean acidification,” Lautenberg said.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Lautenberg and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Co-sponsors include Senators Ted Stevens, R-Ark., Olympia Snowe, R-Me., John Kerry, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Companion legislation in the House is sponsored by Representatives Tom Allen, D-Maine, Jay Inslee, D-Wash., Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., and nine other co-sponsors.

Lautenberg said his bill is supported by many environmental and conservation groups including the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the Climate Institute, Environmental Defense, Gulf Restoration Network, Ocean Conservancy, Coastal States Organization, Oceana, the Surfrider Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

The bill is also supported by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education representing 95 academic institutions and universities; the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, which is the world’s largest professional organization devoted to the study of aquatic science; and the National Association of Marine Laboratories, representing about 120 coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes laboratories.

Richard Degener, Press of Atlantic City, 5 December 2007. Article.

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