Senate 'odd couple' returns, this time in search of a genius

When President Trump signed a bill aimed at cleaning up plastic trash last fall, he noted the unlikely pair of senators standing by his side: Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska.

"The president remarked on us being a rather odd couple," Whitehouse said yesterday at a Capitol Hill news conference, recalling the Oct. 11, 2018, ceremony.

The duo is back with a sequel: Eight months after the president signed the Save Our Seas Act into law, Whitehouse and Sullivan yesterday introduced a new bill, the "Save Our Seas 2.0 Act."

This time they're hoping Congress will authorize a new "genius prize" that would be awarded for innovations for ocean cleanup and research that would reduce the amount of plastic that's choking the seas.

"Ocean plastic is a complex global issue, but it's a challenge we can solve if the United States puts energy into leading on this and investing in creative solutions," said Whitehouse, co-founder of the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus.

The approach echoes a bill that has already been approved in the House, though for a different problem affecting the oceans: Earlier this month the House voted overwhelmingly to pass the "Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019," H.R. 1921, which would allow agencies to use existing funds to conduct prize competitions to increase research, monitoring and management of ocean acidification.

The genius prize is just one of many components of the new bill.

The senators said their legislation would aim to reduce plastic waste and to find new uses for it by tackling the problem on a global scale. They called for establishing a new marine debris response trust fund and a new marine debris foundation, along with more studies and improved waste management infrastructure to lessen pollution.

Sullivan said the plastic trash hits fisheries and his state particularly hard, with Alaska having more coastline than the Lower 48 states combined.

The problem will only worsen without intervention, he added, citing a study predicting the amount of plastic by weight will exceed the amount of fish by weight in the oceans by 2050 if current trends continue.

"That's something to think about," Sullivan said.

He called the growing marine debris "a chronic issue" but added: "The good news is that this is one environmental issue that is solvable, actionable and measurable."

'No single solution'

While roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic waste from land enters the oceans each year, the senators said an estimated 90% comes from 10 rivers, including eight in Asia.

The bill would ask the Trump administration to consider ocean cleanup as part of any international agreement, including trade pacts.

"We know that most plastic pollution comes from foreign sources and that marine debris knows no borders," said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Menendez, who appeared at the news conference with Whitehouse and Sullivan, said agencies such as NOAA and EPA should be more involved in international outreach efforts to tackle the waste.

"There's not a single person who wants to swim in plastic debris or catch fish that fed on microplastics. ... We must exercise our global leadership," he said.

Kevin Allexon, senior manager of government relations at Ocean Conservancy, said the bill "rightly recognizes that there is no single solution to the ocean plastic crisis" and that a global response is needed.

"Every country, including the U.S., can do more to prevent plastic from entering the ocean," he said. "We are also pleased that the bill prioritizes research."

The first Save Our Seas Act, S. 3508, reauthorized and amended the Marine Debris Act, extending NOAA's Marine Debris Program through fiscal 2022. It also gave NOAA's administrator the authority to declare severe marine debris events, either independently or at a governor's request.

When Trump signed the bill last year, he said "previous administrations did absolutely nothing to take on the foreign countries responsible" for ocean trash.

"We've already notified most of them, and we've notified them very strongly," Trump said.

Trump said the issue had gained broad bipartisan support, noting the two senators next to him. Expressing his satisfaction, the president thanked Sullivan and Whitehouse for their work.

"That's pretty good," Trump said. "Can you imagine Trump and Whitehouse in the same area? It's all right."

By:  Rob Hotakainen
Source: E&E News