With the Deepwater Horizon oil well capped, attention has shifted to preventing another blowout. On September 8, Jane Lubchenco and Nancy Sutley answered questions about the Deepwater Horizon fallout, and the future of the oceans, before a Climate One audience in San Francisco.
Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), repeatedly stressed the importance of the administration’s just-released oceans policy. On July 19, President Obama signed an executive order, adopting the recommendations (PDF) of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. The year-long review established the new oceans policy, and it also created the National Oceans Council, charged with strengthening ocean governance and coordination across the federal bureaucracy and among stakeholders – local and state governments, energy companies, and the seafood industry.
Lubchenco and Sutley expressed confidence that the new oceans policy would help streamline and centralize the fractured system that had existed before. Climate One founder Greg Dalton asked Sutley how inter-agency communication would improve under the new plan. Sutley highlighted two principal improvements: getting everyone to the table, including local, state, and federal officials; and bringing relevant data together in one place to help decision-making. The usual actors were involved, Sutley added, including the EPA and Department of Interior. But other government stakeholders, including the Coast Guard and Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw value in participating as well.
The pair’s enthusiasm for the new reforms was tempered by the dire state of the oceans and the manifold threats that promise to degrade them further. Many of the threats are sadly familiar – over-fishing, coral bleaching, and warming and rising seas. Lubchenco highlighted another, acidification, overlooked at our peril. We’ve been fortunate, she said, that oceans have been able to take in CO2 from the atmosphere, but that sink is not limitless. The acidity of the oceans has increased by 30% in the past 100 years, she said. Increased acidity is compromising the ability of calcium carbonate-shelled creatures to make shells, threatening the “rainforests of the sea” – coral reefs – and placing in jeopardy the base of the marine food chain, she warned.
It will take years to know the full extent of the damage to Gulf marine ecosystems wrought by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Dalton asked Lubchenco to comment on one variable that may determine how long recovery will take: How much oil is left in the Gulf? First, Lubchenco said, we now have a good estimate of how much oil gushed from the blown-out well: 4.9 million barrels. Of this, ¼ was burned, skimmed, or captured; ¼ evaporated; ¼ was dispersed, naturally or by chemicals; and the last ¼ collected as sheen on the surface, in tar balls, or washed ashore. Lubchenco was most concerned about the very, very dilute (in parts per million) but still toxic oil that remains below the surface. “Dilute does not mean benign,” she said.
Climate One, The Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco (August 16, 2010)