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David Helvarg

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A Year After BP -- From Greenwashing to Bluewashing

Posted: 04/20/11 09:47 AM ET

The National Ocean Policy Coalition has one aim -- to undermine America's National Ocean Policy. Why am I not surprised?

In 1994 I wrote a book called, The War Against the Greens, about how industries created anti-environmental front groups and nurtured a 'Wise Use' movement that, along with traditional rallies and protests used threats, intimidation and violence to achieve its ends. These ends were mostly to promote the agenda of their extractive industry backers and protect federal subsidies for mining, logging and cattle companies operating on public lands. With support from Western politicians like Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Larry Craig of Idaho they managed, among other things, to keep the Clinton administration from following through on its early pledge to reform public lands management.

Another corporate strategy was known as greenwashing, giving an environmental spin to environmentally destructive practices, taking credit for restoration work that the industry was forced to do as a result of lawsuits and regulations they'd fought against or creating green sounding front groups.

Some industry folks I talked to were quite proud of the names they'd come up with like the Alliance for Environment and Resources (a pro-logging group run out of a Forestry Association office), the Greening Earth Society (a coal and utility backed group claiming increased carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is good for plant growth and so could solve the problem of world hunger) and the National Wetlands Coalition, put together by contractors and developers opposed to Clean Water Act provisions that protect wetlands.

Which brings us to today's National Ocean Policy Coalition. In the wake of last summer's BP blowout disaster in the Gulf, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the nation's first National Ocean Policy to try and coordinate competing uses of our public seas in ways that will assure their continued health. The oil industry, which has generated a trillion dollars in offshore revenues since 1946, was not pleased. They formed the National Ocean Policy Coalition with the aim of promoting, "a sound, balanced ocean policy that... enhances commercial and recreational activities, such as oil and gas development," in other words, business as usual.

NOPC's membership includes the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, U.S. Oil & Gas Association, National Ocean Industries Association (offshore oil & gas) and Consumer Energy Alliance, an outfit formed by a D.C. lobbyist to fight against climate regulation. Among a handful of non-oil members is a sport fishing industry trade association that is leading the fight against the establishment of wilderness parks in the sea (known as Marine Protected Areas) where neither fishing nor drilling are allowed.

Just as the mining and timber industries in the West looked to use cowboy ranchers to front their Wise Use agenda in the 1990s, the oil industry is hoping to mobilize recreational fishermen as the visible face of opposition to public planning on our public seas. Despite pushback from some outdoor writers and conservation-oriented sportfishing groups they've had some success. Towards the end of the public hearings process that led to the new ocean policy an article appeared in ESPN Outdoors.com claiming the President was about to ban recreational fishing in large parts of the ocean. The story quickly went viral and was touted by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others on the right. Signs started showing up at Tea Party rallies reading, "Obama, get your hands off my fishing pole." In its final report the President's Ocean Policy Taskforce included language specifically reassuring recreational fishermen and women that they were an important element of the ocean stakeholder community and no one was out to take their poles away.

A little background might help: In 2003 and 2004 two blue ribbon ocean panels (a federal one appointed by President Bush, another led by now-CIA chief Leon Panetta) put out reports both stating that the ecological decline of U.S. waters posed a threat to our economy, security and environment and recommending better coordination and oversight of America's blue frontier. U.S. federal waters are presently run by 24 different agencies operating under 140 laws with little or no coordination among them. The result has been decades of overfishing, pollution, sprawl, oil spills and beach closures.

In 2009 President Obama established an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to review the recommendations of the two commissions and examine new and changed realities. There followed a long process of public hearings by the taskforce attended by thousands of citizen stakeholders who were in the great majority supportive of their effort. The ocean policy's operating principle, now incorporated into the President's executive order, is called ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP).

The CMSP idea is to take a more unified and mapped out approach to ocean management. Ultimately, if done correctly, it could involve cleaning up our coastal watersheds, greening our ports and designating offshore waters not only for shipping but also energy, fishing, national defense, wildlife and wilderness in a dynamic and regionally responsive manner (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California have taken the lead).

For the oil industry, having to operate on a level playing field is not an attractive option however. One of their key allies on Capitol Hill, House Natural Resources Committee Chair "Doc" Hastings (R. WA) doesn't even pretend to want to work with the new ocean policy, calling the president's approach "irrational zoning" and pushing bills through the House to speed up offshore oil and gas permitting in federal waters. Not surprisingly the oil & gas industry was his largest campaign contributor last year.

Our public seas deserve better. They deserve well-coordinated management from all levels of government: federal, state, local and tribal to try and resolve user conflicts rather than simply respond to the demands of a single powerful industry lobby. Hopefully, despite big oil's "bluewashing," efforts citizens who work on, live by or enjoy the ocean will begin to engage more actively in determining its future and work for good ocean policies and practices that can help assure healthy waters and coastal communities from Maine to Hawaii and from sea to shining sea.