Conflict of Interest Habits Spread from Oil and Gas to Offshore Wind Development

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Difficulties in transitioning the US to renewable energy is not limited to your on-shore town.

Off-shore wind is growing at break-neck pace as a part of the Biden administration’s commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But change is usually hard, and the 3,411 turbines and 9,874 miles of cable are slated to be built across 2.4 million acres of federally managed ocean in the next ten years has some concerned about ocean ecosystems and the livelihoods of fishers.

The characteristics of relatively shallow water and steady winds that make certain areas off the East Coast of the US attractive for wind turbine placement also create environments – sunlight penetration and current mixing – that are great habitat for microorganisms and fish spawning.

Alarms signaled by federal scientists and those in the fishing industry about revenue losses due to ecosystem damage have been ignored. Some point to the revolving door for bureaucrats who move between extractive industries and government positions, and now between the offshore energy industry and the regulatory bodies that are intended to govern them. 

Conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity point out that just because wind energy is better than oil or gas, that doesn’t mean we should ignore poor governance or sacrifice ecosystems.

Complicating the matter, two separate federal agencies have conflicting jurisdiction over these waters. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which is part of the Interior Department, oversees permitting and leasing for offshore wind development, from which the federal government reaped more than $5 billion last year. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the Commerce Department, is supposed to protect marine habitat and ensure that the fishing industry is both sustainable and economically viable.

“We are very concerned about the cumulative impacts of multiple wind energy projects on the fisheries we manage,” directors of three federally established regional councils that advise NMFS wrote last fall to Amanda Lefton, then the head of BOEM.

While the BOEM publicly states their desire to support both industries’ co-existence and thriving, a May 2021 report shows that the agency concedes commercial fishing is likely to fully abandon the area where the first of the large-scale projects is to be sited.

Environmental laws require BOEM to consult with the fisheries service on projects taking place in “essential fish habitat,” which encompasses all offshore wind projects within 200 miles of the coast, but in the end, is not required to heed recommendations they receive.

The concerning impacts reported to BOEM included “fish kills” from the physical impact of pile driving that can be felt over 50 miles away, stress responses that prevent fish from spawning and feeding, sediment kicked up from the ocean floor, and loss of juvenile cod from the deep trench digging.

NMFS complained that the BOEM environmental review of the Vineyard Wind project didn’t include a consideration of the concerns they had submitted. The Chief Environmental Officer explained the decision saying the delays in giving these concerns consideration “might prevent Vineyard Wind from qualifying for a federal investment tax credit.”

Concerns submitted for a nearby project included “Intense sound pressure waves” may result in “injury or mortality caused by rupturing swim bladders or by internal hemorrhaging,” the developers wrote in their approved construction plans. Pile driving has the “potential to interrupt migration patterns” for fish.

For now, offshore wind development is unlikely to be slowed, the livelihoods of fishers are at risk, and the federal government is facing another test of how to infuse equity and ecological care into the energy transition.

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