Feds will review marine areas

06/01/2017

The Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries have until the end of June to submit documents to federal review mandated by an executive order aimed at evaluating sites, in part for mining and offshore drilling potential.

The order, signed in April, called for a review of all national marine sanctuaries and monuments that were expanded or designated in the last decade; the local sanctuaries are two of only six that likely fall into that category, said Richard Charter, a Sonoma resident who sits on the Greater Farallones advisory council.

“This is part of the Trump administration’s arbitrary, broad-based attack on the environment and on Obama’s legacy,” Mr. Charter said. “We don’t even know if the administration has the desks filled they need to conduct this review, but we’re taking this very seriously.”

The executive order, titled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Policy,” may be primarily intended to open up offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, areas former President Barack Obama attempted to permanently withdraw from all future development through the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act just last December.

But it also includes language that subjects national monuments and sanctuaries to potential re-evaluation, including for any untapped energy or mineral resources.

The administration has not publicized a formal list of qualifying sites, but last week the two sanctuaries received letters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, detailing the materials they must submit to the Department of Commerce in order to comply with the executive order.

The superintendents of the sanctuaries appear to be keeping their cool. “The establishment and expansion of the sanctuary underwent an intensive public review process, and there was tremendous public support,” Dan Howard, the superintendent of Cordell Bank, said at a Farallones sanctuary advisory council meeting last week. “We are very confident, therefore, that any further review process will reveal only that we have crossed all our T’s and dotted all of our I’s.” 

Maria Brown, the superintendent for Greater Farallones, echoed his sentiment. She said that although it will take some extra staff time, most of the requested information—including an environmental impact statement, a management plan, dates and links for public comments, and evidence of consultation with state, federal and tribal groups, among other things—is at the ready.

Greater Farallones was first designated years ago, in 1981, to protect one of the four most important ocean upwelling systems on the planet. Within the California Current ecosystem, the wind-driven upwelling brings a ready supply of nutrients to surface waters, making the region incredibly biologically productive. 

At least 25 endangered or threatened species, 36 marine mammal species, over a quarter-million seabirds and one of the most significant white shark populations on the planet breed or feed there. Greater Farallones also has a $1.1 billion value from visitation and a $16 million value from fishing.

Neighboring Cordell Bank, which protects a 26-square mile bank composed of granite reef, boulders, cobbles, sand and mud that provides critical habitat for marine life, was created in 1989. 

A bill to expand both sanctuaries, sponsored by former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, was approved by the House of Representatives in 2008, but never passed the Senate. Bay Nature Magazine reported that in 2012, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Woolsey asked NOAA to pass a law administratively—a process that takes more time and incorporates public feedback. 

Through this process, the territories of both were expanded in 2015. The Farallones expanded nearly threefold, now encompassing 3,295 square miles from Bodega Bay to just north of the Point Arena lighthouse. Cordell Bank grew from 529 to 1,286 square miles.

Many members of both sanctuaries’ advisory councils suspected the areas would be subject to the executive order, and the Farallones advisory council began drafting a resolution in defense of the expansion. 

Mr. Charter said the effort is an attempt to “frontload the public response process” to make sure people have responses at the ready in case there are opportunities for public comment in the administration’s review process. 

The resolution emphasizes the lengthy public and legal process that preceded the expansion, and highlights peer-reviewed science that supports the new configuration. After the language is finalized, it will be sent to the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Ocean Service and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The Secretary of Commerce has until Oct. 25 to report the results of the review.

In an April article in the Washington Post, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke described a lengthy process, saying it would likely take two years to do a thorough review of areas that could be put up for auction. 

But a similar process in Utah appears to be moving much more quickly. A parallel executive order released two days before the marine sanctuary order, titled “Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act,” called for reviewing monuments exclusively. The administration allowed a mere 15 days for public comment in its recent evaluation of whether to shrink or eliminate Bears Ears National Monument.

Though Mr. Charter said there has never been significant interest in this area from oil developers, offshore drilling has been a contentious issue in California for decades. Twenty-seven oil platforms operate off the state’s coast—primarily in Southern California—though new drilling leases have been banned in state waters since 1969 after an infamous Santa Barbara oil spill, and no new leases have been issued in federal waters since 1984.

Currently, oil, gas or mineral exploration, development or production is explicitly prohibited within the sanctuary.