How a Trump executive order that threatens marine sanctuaries along the California coast
By Aric Sleeper
It’s no secret that the people of Santa Cruz County view the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary—with its distant mountain silhouettes, sailboats, seals and sea birds—as a sacrosanct monument unparalleled by anything manmade. The Trump administration feels differently, however. They want to put a price tag on the invaluable coastline with the implementation of the America First Offshore Energy Strategy.
“We call it Trump’s ‘Oceans Last’ strategy,’” says Save Our Shores Executive Director Katherine O’Dea.
The executive order, signed in April 2017, calls for a federal review of all U.S. marine sanctuaries to determine whether they contain oil, gas, or rare-earth minerals.
California’s coastal ecosystems have been endangered by the threat of offshore drilling and mineral extraction many times in the past. These same issues spurred the formation of a grassroots environmental movement in the 1970s, which led ultimately to founding of Save Our Shores in 1980, and the Monterey Bay’s sanctuary designation, granted by an act of congress in 1992.
Because the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) just celebrated its 25th birthday in September, it seems to be outside of the executive order’s purview, which only threatens marine sanctuaries designated in the last decade. But an addendum to MBNMS, the Davidson Seamount, was added in 2008, and the sanctuary status of the nearly 30 miles of underwater mountains may be found expendable under the executive order.
“It’s not contiguous with the rest of the sanctuary and sits quite far offshore—which may make it sound like it’s not a big deal—but the reason they’re looking at any of these new or expanded sanctuaries is primarily for the opportunity to perform extractive energy exploration,” says O’Dea.
She points out that if energy extraction were to happen on the seamount, the oil, gas, or minerals would have to be piped or shipped back to shore. “And as we’ve seen play out over and over and over again, there is likely to be a mishap—a leak somewhere—and that would be very devastating to the original acreage designated as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary,” she explains.
Researchers haven’t found overwhelming evidence for large oil or natural gas reserves under the seamount that would interest the private sector, but there is a possibility that the sanctuary contains rare-earth minerals. If the federal review found evidence of potential mineral deposits, the executive order allows for further productive exploration.
“To explore for minerals, they would have to use explosives on the seabed, which would create a tremendous disruption to the immediate habitat and ecosystems. How far out is hard to estimate,” says O’Dea. “And if the rare-earth minerals were to escape into the open water, the flow would take them into the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. They would get into the sea life’s food chain, and ultimately the human food chain. And unlike oil spills, there are no measures designed to clean up minerals.”
Even if the federal review decided to maintain the Davidson Seamount’s sanctuary status, the Monterey Bay could still be in hot water. If offshore oil drilling is allowed north, off the coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and an oil spill occurred, the ocean currents would guide the pollutants directly into the Monterey Bay.
“There’s an ocean eddy off the coast where the oil would be trapped. It would be extremely difficult to clean up because the eddy motion would contaminate our shores over and over again,” says O’Dea. “We can’t just put our blinders on and ignore the rest of the coast. It’s all one ecosystem and what happens anywhere on the coast is still our concern.”
The executive order is considerably frustrating to anyone familiar with the processes that created the six marine sanctuaries and five marine national monuments now subject to federal review. The sanctuary designation is a grueling process that consists of reviews and studies by multiple organizations and individuals that can span a decade or more.
“They wouldn’t be designated a sanctuary if serious review hadn’t already been conducted,” says O’Dea.
The Department of Commerce (DOC) held a public comment period for the executive order over the summer of 2017, during which time Save Our Shores and more than 52,000 others offered their opinions. The DOC will complete and submit the results of their review to the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy no later than Oct. 25. They will then decide on further actions.
Save Our Shores is one of hundreds of organizations worldwide that are working to prevent this executive order from threatening the coastline. Local lawmakers have also vowed to ensure the continued protection of our marine sanctuaries, like Assemblymember Mark Stone, who O’Dea considers “an asset to our community,” and the son of one of the sanctuary’s original champions, Leon Panetta, Congressman Jimmy Panetta.
“Our nation’s marine sanctuaries were created to protect the living treasures that are our oceans,” Panetta tells Waves. “California has had a long history of oil drilling, and oil spills, so local and federal governments have stepped up to protect our oceans and coastal communities. I’m going to keep fighting to protect and preserve our ocean so that my daughters, and future generations, can enjoy everything that our coast has to offer.”