The scientist responsible for contributing a marine perspective as a member of the BP Oil Spill Commission has no doubts his scientific expertise is coming in handy.

When marine scientist Donald Boesch isn’t informing policymakers with his scientific knowledge, he’s addressing agriculture scientists on food and environmental security related to climate change impacts, advising the National Academies on best uses of new research funds, or leading a transformational climate change education initiative … among other things.

Boesch, on right, hopes Gulf Coast oil spill grants can help region look forward ‘in ways it may not be prepared to do currently.’

Boesch is a marine sciences professor and President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. While his environmental competence is broad, science plays a key role throughout his full range of professional activities.

When advising policies around developing offshore wind, for example, Boesch encourages a total-ecosystems approach, still something of a new concept for many. Planners long have assessed each sector individually, rather than evaluate the marine environment for multiple uses.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI) recently asked Boesch to help head its efforts nationally. He says he wants to ensure that what happens in oceans isn’t a separate concern, but rather part of a whole-ecosystem management approach.

‘Fast’ Science Needed to Understand Agricultural Challenges

Boesch sees a particular urgency in addressing the significant consequences of climate change on food security in the U.S. and globally. “The big challenge here is this is happening fast. The science to support (agricultural) adaptation needs to happen fast. It has to happen along the same time frame as actual adaptation, and the real problem is food security,” he recently told a symposium on food and environmental security.

As a member of the BP Oil Spill Commission, Boesch brought his marine science background to efforts aimed at improving coastal resiliency to help prevent future devastation from offshore drilling. Having grown up in the Gulf Coast region and worked in Louisiana, where he earlier had headed the Louisiana Consortium of Marine Universities (LUMCON), he knew the lay of the land. Perhaps even more importantly, he knew how to work with a range of experts with conflicting political backgrounds. He says both were key in helping him think of solutions.

Now, Boesch is helping inform how the $20 billion — roughly the amount expected to be paid by the oil spill “responsible parties” — will be spent. The largest amount of funding for environmental restoration will come from Clean Water Act penalties for the soil spill though the Restore Act and payments to address the damages to natural resources attributed to the BP oil spill through the natural resources damage assessment. “Both may be adjudicated by the courts or through legal settlement, so the amount that will ultimately be available is not yet known,” Boesch said.

In addition to making recommendations for the use of $2.5 billion for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for environmental restoration, Boesch is part of a panel at the National Academy of Sciences advising how $500 million in oil spill settlement money paid to the Academy can fund research at the nexus of oil system safety, environmental health and well being. Beyond studying how to restore Gulf Coast ecosystems, the money would allow the Academy to give grants to support regional adaptation and mitigation to climate change.

“The grants can help this region think about its future in ways it may not be prepared to do currently,” he says, “especially building resiliency to climate change, preparing for sea-level rise in low lying areas, and developing realistic assessments of storm vulnerability.”

The Yale Forum’s Lisa Palmer recently spoke with Boesch about his hopes for science to strengthen ecosystem-based management policies of the oceans. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Why is the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative so important, given the state of the oceans?

Boesch sees ecosystem management and spatial planning as key to determining best and most compatible uses of ocean resources

Let’s do a little background. The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, or JOCI, stemmed from a 2005 initiative by the Pew Charitable Trust, called the Pew Oceans Commission; and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

I had an official role on both commissions, and both supported the idea that addressing the problems of the oceans requires some sort of integrated approach to ocean use and management — a coherent, ecosystem-based management approach.

When President Obama took office in 2009, Congress passed legislation and the Joint Initiative formed; it was essentially a presidential commission. It’s now co-chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus, former EPA Administrator, and Norm Mineta, who was Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration and Secretary of Transportation under Bush.

With ocean issues, coherence is important. Ecosystem-based management uses a tool called spatial planning, which basically means you lay out all the possible uses of the ocean and look at how we can make them compatible. The way the country has gone, these are very controversial issues. Recently a House amendment was introduced to prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from using spatial planning for water resources development because some said it involved too much government.

So the Joint Initiative wrote a letter telling the House to reject this amendment because it is inconsistent with our recommendations. You can’t come in and make a one-size-fits-all national policy, but spatial planning is basic common sense.

Why does a national perspective on the management of coastal ecosystems matter so much?

We’ve been developing regional councils, and a lot of effort has gone into working together with states to develop a plan. So, yes, you need to involve the states. But guess what: beyond three miles, except nine miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida and Texas, the seas belong not to the states but to all of America. So there’s significant federal interest in developing coherence with our ocean resources. And one area where it’s pretty clear is the U.S. Arctic. It’s pretty obvious that it is changing dramatically and the region is facing new pressures on energy development. So the Commission is working to develop compatible ocean policy.

What are the main strengths the Joint Initiative brings to the table?

The Commission has some standing in these policy debates because it’s bipartisan. The leadership team is well respected and includes a wide range of people from both Democratic and Republican administrations. I have the opportunity to bring scientific thoughts and contributions into a policy context. The Commission would be a success if we could see an end to the kind of resistance to sensible regional planning that involves federal, regional, and state agencies.

The Gulf of Mexico is particularly rough territory for that kind of comprehensive planning, but there are tremendous opportunities for ecosystems-based planning given the expenditure of funds related to the oil spill.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island are two states that have been out-front on regional spatial planning, a main tool of ecosystem-based management, and not without some blood on the floor. They came together to figure out the conflicts between offshore wind energy and fisheries. You can’t do it just with feds. Everyone needs to come together, and because it’s bipartisan, JOCI has shown it has the ability to form common ground.

What are the key lessons scientists should take from the work of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

Before I was asked to be on the BP Commission, from my perspective as an observer sitting here in Maryland and as a scientist having worked in the Gulf on the dead zone and the massive loss of the Mississippi Delta wetlands, and having worked on oil spills, my thought was, this could be bad.

But, as bad as it’s going to be on the Gulf itself, it’s going to be peanuts compared to the long-term damage the industry has inflicted on the Gulf Coast region overall.

The BP Commission was a tremendous learning experience. I learned more about subsea geology and drilling technology than I thought I’d ever care to know. I brought certain science concerns to the table, but this also resulted in my becoming even more concerned about the lack of sufficient oversight and regulation in an activity that has so much money involved and is so dominated by pressure and interest of the oil and gas industry, and the dependence of a region on them.

There is little interest from the ground in making sure things are done safely, and the industry has had a substantial ability to avoid being regulated.

We also learned a lot about the tremendous, single-minded focus that involved multiple companies working together and resulted in remarkable technological advances to drill in the deepest part of the Gulf under enormous pressures to get the oil and gas out. They were driven so much by that focus, and they did not have the same level of focus and attention on the safety side. There was a feeling that they were invincible. So it was a wake-up call for the industry as well.

The settlement money from the oil spill provides a huge opportunity to get people on the Gulf Coast to think about realistic opportunities, their future, and their sustainability, and to do so in more complex ways than they’ve had before, such as a future that involves healthier people. Not only because we are protecting them from oil spills but because they have better diets and a future that deals better with the social and community stresses from oil and gas development.

I lived there. I can tell you, those stresses are substantial. It’s critical for us to think about how this program can have a lasting impact. How we can use science and engineering better to help this region. Beyond all the money flying around, beyond environmental restoration, JOCI can help with the big vision of how can we help this region think about the future of this whole ecosystem.

And beyond just training graduate students in an environmental program, I’d like to see the MBA students, physicians, and other professional degree students become better educated in leadership to really think about living on the Gulf Coast and just what that means.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC, in Annapolis, Md. Her writing covers the environment, energy, food security, agriculture,...