A Maritime Focus for the New Year: Ending the Balkanization of the Regulatory Process

Federal efforts to solve problems – especially those having to do with maritime issues – need to be approached on a national level

As Barack Obama enters the White House in January, he’ll do so with the blessings and adulations of maritime labor. Typically an honor reserved for Democratic candidates, the endorsement of labor – across the board – comes as no surprise to anyone. But Obama made a lot of promises – as did McCain, to be fair – to a lot of people for a lot of things. One thing in particular that stands out in my mind is the Obama campaign’s promise to inject $5 billion into a trust fund to address – among other things – pollution and invasive species in the Great Lakes. And, while that kind of initiative is a welcome development in the stalled effort to combat invasive species in American waters, it also represents at the same time, everything that is wrong with the process today.

The domestic effort to eradicate waterborne invasive species and prevent the introduction of still others has been ongoing here and overseas for more than ten years. Unfortunately, the broader effort has come to be characterized by its lack of central coordination and corresponding lack of results. Today, we have competing protocols from places such as California, Michigan, the IMO, the EPA and a myriad of other places. And despite the claim from the United States Coast Guard (first uttered to this writer back in 2003) that “The problem of invasive species is the highest priority marine environmental issue for the U.S. Coast Guard,” the nation’s Homeland Security warriors are the only players in the game who don’t seem to have (at least) a proposed standard in play.

Ultimately, the standard for testing, certification of equipment and the ballast water handling protocols of the future will have to go through the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard’s rulemaking effort can nominally be measured through their progress their Shipboard Technology Evaluation Program (STEP), which (a) helps technology developers test their systems and incentivizes ship operators to install equipment without fear that the equipment will be declared inadequate down the road when and if a standard is defined, and (b) provides the Coast Guard and the general public with high-quality information and data about how the systems work and how well they achieve the desired results. Commercial systems are already receiving program approvals. It is a start.

In the meantime, state of Michigan, impatient and tired of waiting for the federal government to make things happen, went ahead and set their own standards for ballast water handling. In the process, they managed only to shoot themselves in the foot in terms of their already flagging ocean traffic at a time when the Great Lakes state’s economy is already on life support. Along the way, someone forgot to tell Michigan lawmakers that fish and other wet things can and do swim and that they are probably on their way over from Ohio and Minnesota waters, even as I type out this column. California (go figure!) seems to like this model, as well. And the EPA has something to say about all of it, too. When you throw in the IMO’s standard, the result is a terribly Balkanized process that solves nothing and leaves much to be desired.

The coming New Year will start with great expectations for a great many special interests. Most of them are going to be disappointed as the new President navigates his way down the direct center of the funding stream. Awaiting him is the reality that you can’t please everyone, especially to the detriment of the greater good. It will be a short honeymoon if he tries. Today, we’re talking about invasive species but this column could drive the discussion in a hundred different directions: stack emissions, grey water handling, AIS and a host of others. In the end, all of these important issues have one thing in common: a federal standard that is married to an international effort will be the key to success.

We seem to very rapidly moving to the point of a worldwide standard on stack emissions and operators are being presented with a wide variety of ways to get to the Promised Land, based on a clearly defined standard. The same cannot be said about the scourge of invasive species. And while the technology to address the problem clearly exists on both sides of the big pond, individual state requirements will be need to be married to a federal standard – and superseded if necessary – before shippers are going to open their pocketbooks and install a million dollar piece of equipment. Localized solutions, therefore, are decidedly unhelpful.

A $5 billion injection into the effort to eliminate invasive species is a welcome development. But that earmark is better channeled into the coffers of the U.S. Coast Guard, who has been tasked with solving the problem. Everyone wants economy of scale in government and this is a great place to start. And any solution that does not include the federal stamp of approval is no solution at all. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself reading this column again in about 12 months. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com .