A bill that would allow institutions researching ocean acidification to compete for $50 million annually in federal prize money passed the U.S. House of Representatives after being introduced by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, earlier this year.
The Ocean Acidification Innovation Act, or H.R. 1921, coasted to victory Wednesday morning with 395 “yay” votes to 22 “nays.” Its next stop is the Senate, where the bipartisan legislation is expected pass.
Under the bill, federal agencies would be able to use existing funds to conduct prize contests — awarding competitors who find better ways to research, monitor and manage ocean acidification.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would free up $30.5 million per year through 2024 for the prize money, according to the bill’s text. The National Science Foundation would supply an additional $20 million per year.
Prize money is a carrot commonly dangled by the federal government to boost research and investment into environmental science. Last year, for instance, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a $3 million series of prize contests for entrepreneurs developing new solar technology.
Herrera Beutler represents Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, which stretches to the West Coast and includes a vast fishing and shellfishing community in Pacific County.
“Shellfish and fishing industry jobs in Pacific County are jeopardized by the detrimental effects of ocean acidification,” Herrera Beutler said in a media release.
About a quarter of the country’s oysters are harvested in Southwest Washington. In 2010, the Washington Shellfish Initiative estimated the regional industry provided 2,700 jobs and $184 million.
As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the water’s pH level drops and it becomes more corrosive. That can spell disaster for coral reefs, which in a sensitive ocean ecosystem affects the entire marine food chain.
Organisms that create shells are especially vulnerable to acidification: oysters, mussels and pteropods, especially, all of which are interwoven into the food chains for salmon and orcas.
In championing the issue, Herrera Beutler appears to be following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Democratic Rep. Brian Baird.
Baird made ocean acidification something of a personal linchpin near the tail end of his 12-year run in the 3rd District seat, and as chairman of a House Energy and Environment subcommittee overseeing federal research grants, he was vocal on its impacts.
The former congressman also attracted national press coverage when his research trips to the Galapagos Islands, Australia and the South Pole racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer tabs. For better or worse, the coverage further spotlighted the issue of ocean acidification.
Herrera Beutler’s new bill was created in collaboration with the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit group that organizes public competitions targeted at solving existential global problems.
The organization’s causes are varied and vast. Last year, for instance, the Women’s Safety XPRIZE awarded $1 million for a cheap, inconspicuous device that can trigger an emergency alert if a woman is facing a threat. Before that, the Google Lunar XPRIZE awarded $20 million to the best long-term model for affordable transportation to the moon.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, joined Herrera Beutler in introducing the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act in March. The bill has since picked up co-sponsors in Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
“This bipartisan legislation promises to spark innovative solutions to this serious threat facing our coastal communities, and I’m pleased that my House colleagues gave it their strong approval,” Herrera Beutler said in the media release. “The next step is approval by the U.S. Senate, and I’ll continue advocating for this legislative approach to protecting fishing businesses and jobs.”