Use of BP spill response money, global warming, ocean acidification are focus of Capitol Hill Ocean Week

With the impending arrival of billions of dollars for restoration of environmental damage along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, the 13th annual Capitol Hill Ocean Week, a gathering of federal, state and local ocean and coastal managers, scientists and related industry executives in Washington, D.C., provided an important perspective on how that effort should be coordinated with other environmental issues involving the Gulf, its shoreline and the oceans in general.

“There’s no doubt that this spill has been the most investigated, dissected, researched oil spill that’s ever occurred,” said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University’s Corpus Christi campus.McKinney said the blowout of Macondo’s well more than a mile below the ocean, with oil and gas spewing at 6,000 pounds of pressure, turned assumptions about how to fight spills upside down.

The three-day Ocean Week forum was sponsored by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, co-hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and underwritten by a variety of national and international foundations, marine research facilities and the oil and gas exploration industry.

Much of its focus was on other ocean and coastal policy challenges, including lessons learned from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, how the near-year-round loss of ice in the Arctic Circle is driving major changes in resource development decision-making and the shipping industry, and on the effects of climate change.At the top of the climate change concerns was ocean acidification: the world’s oceans are becoming more acidic, which can cause a variety of problems for fisheries, ranging from the disruption of the formation of coral on coral reefs that can disrupt reef fisheries to the inability of oyster larvae to form shells.

The warning bells for ocean acidification began ringing in 2007, said Julia Roberson, a scientist who directs the ocean acificiation program for the Ocean Conservancy.

That’s when the Whiskey Creek hatchery in Oregon and the Taylor Shellfish Farms in Oregon, two of the three largest sources of oyster larvae for oyster growers on the West Coast, saw 80 percent of their larvae die.

She said hatchery operators Bill Taylor for Taylor Shellfish and Mark Wiegardt with Whiskey Creek first believed the problem was biological, that some disease was killing the larvae.

“They installed pricey filtration and sterilization systems,” Roberson said. “Nothing was working. At Whiskey Creek in Oregon, they lost 80 percent of their harvest and came close to declaring bankruptcy.”

The greater risk was the $272 million a year industry in Washington state alone, which employs 3,200 people, she said.

Assisted by researchers at Oregon State University, Whiskey Creek’s staff started monitoring the pH – acidity level – of the water that was going into the tanks where the larvae were raised.

“It turned out the oyster die-offs coincided with high acidity readings” she said. “The larvae couldn’t build their shells because of the increased acidity.”

With financial assistance from the states and from the shellfish industry, the hatcheries installed systems to continuously monitor acidity levels.

“When the reading reaches a certain level in these operations they can turn off the intake pipe and the oysters can continue growing for the time being,” Roberson said. “But the hatchery operators in this region are often heard saying that they have the luxury as a closed containment system to be able to respond to this stress. Unfortunately, nature can’t do that.”

No similar acidification problem has been found among oyster growers in Louisiana.

Along the East Coast, Sandy has renewed concerns about sea level rise and increased tropical storm strength that are being driven by the same carbon dioxide emissions that are causing ocean acidification, according to several of the speakers during the forum.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 parts per million to more than 394 parts per million over the past 250 years, which includes the “industrial age” that marked the acceleration of human-caused carbon burning.

This year, record average carbon dioxide amounts of 400 parts per million were observed in both Hawaii and the Arctic.

At both a Wednesday night National Marine Sanctuary Foundation ceremony honoring him for his leadership and as a panelist during the conference, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, said it’s time for President Barack Obama to move forward with plans to adopt new regulations requiring significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by industry.

“You can go wherever you want,” Whitehouse said at the awards ceremony. “You can go far north to the Arctic seas and you can see the sea ice melting away and changing those environments. You can go down to the tropic seas and see the collapse and the bleaching of the coral that is the incubator of the ocean species. You can go to the very top of the food chain and find marine mammals that are so poisoned by our toxins that they are literally living, swimming toxic waste. And you can go nto the bottom of the food chain and you can see the tiny little creatures, the phytoplankton and pteropods, shrinking in size.

“Or you can stay right at home for me in Narragansett Bay and watch a 3-degree mean winter water temperature rise and a 10-inch sea level rise,” he said.

“The big issue we have to deal with is carbon,” Whitehouse said. “Carbon is what is driving the acidification of the seas and that is a global phenomenon.”

Too often, he said, he finds pundits saying that something else has to happen first before the carbon “problem” can be solved.

“We (Democrats) have to win the House (of Representatives) back first, we have to do this first, we have to do that first, something has to happen first,” Whitehouse said.

“Well, I’m here to propose to you that we can. The math is simple. We have to put a price on carbon and right now, the politics doesn’t permit that, which means you’ve got to change the political equation,” he said.

The politics he referred to is the opposition in Congress to legislation that would create a “cap-and-trade” system that would require industries to reduce carbon emissions, but allow those that implement reductions greater than required to trade the value of those reductions with other industries for money. Some of that money would go to the industries, while some might go to the federal government or be distributed to state or local governments to offset the higher price of electricity or other services caused by the new regulations.

“The first thing that has to happen is the Obama Administration has to go all in on carbon from a regulatory point of view and move with real force,” Whitehouse said.

That would force industry to the bargaining table, he predicted, which would allow Congress to ultimately develop the new cap and trade system with the industry’s input.

Whitehouse said there’s a “latent army” waiting to assist the president in forcing the issue. He called for environmentally-friendly super political action committees and the political leaders who run them to step up to the plate, including California entrepreneur Tom Steyer and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

They would be joined by environmental supportive faith community organizations like Interfaith Power & Light and National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who would be followed by large American-based corporations that already have called for global warming legislation, including Nike, Coca-Cola, PepsiCola, Ford, GM and Apple, Whitehouse said.

“These allies are out there, they’re latent. They’re divisions standing on the battlefield,” he said. “Right now, there’s no allied command, no strategic plan, and none of them want to stand up first and get their head cut off.”

(Reporter’s note: I participated in Capitol Hill Ocean Week as a member of a Thursday morning panel titled, aptly, “Blue News: What Gets Covered, and Why,” and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation paid my expenses to attend.)

Mark Schleifstein,, The Times-Picayune, 7 June 2013. Full article.

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