Photo credit: Finavon (no modifications) CC BY-SA 4.0

In the early 2000s, CBI was asked by a Congressional staffer to facilitate a meeting on Cape Cod among federal and state agencies considering a proposal to build the nation’s first offshore wind project, Cape Wind.  We entered the room, assuming we’d have a relatively easy conversation clarifying roles and responsibilities for permitting, data collection and analysis, and the like.  Instead, we were surprised - okay, shocked - by the confusion and chaos that ensued.  The agencies did not know, and were in fact arguing about, who had jurisdiction for this new ocean use.  Was it the Army Corps -- but what did they really know about offshore energy development?  What about the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service -- but didn’t they do gas and oil only?  Or maybe the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) -- but didn’t they just do fisheries and endangered marine mammals?  The lack of clarity on leadership was the starting point of a protracted debate on this controversial project that continued for years.

Fast forward almost two decades, and discussions about offshore wind projects are far from chaotic. In fact, they now follow a rigorous, systematic process, defined as part of the Energy Act of 2005, that outlines how the federal government should address offshore wind development in federal waters.  Through an extensive ocean planning effort, the federal government created a process for delineating and leasing wind energy areas in federal waters, and established a clear permitting process that involves engaging state, tribal, and local governments through state task forces.  The processes are not without their critics, but they offer a path forward that makes the Cape Wind days feel like ancient history.

CBI has been part of this evolving process, working with stakeholders across a wide range of ocean uses to balance compatible and competing demands of increasing energy independence, harnessing wind power, sustaining traditional fisheries, and protecting habitats and at-risk marine mammals, birds, and fish stocks. Despite great progress, the development of offshore wind continues to demand creativity, process design, and collaboration, if it is to succeed.  

Competing Agency Interests and Jurisdictions

Despite a defined regulatory process, U.S. waters include complex, multiple jurisdictions, and in every offshore wind energy dialogue, there are any number of state and federal agencies at the table with competing mandates. Each coastal state has authority over state waters, up to three miles out, including marine fisheries, energy development, coastal zone protection, and the interface of land and water (i.e., where transmission lines come to shore).  Though states don’t have jurisdiction in federal waters, many care deeply about advancing renewables and meeting increasingly aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals.  The Coast Guard retains authority over safe navigation and is loath to support development that would result in increased risk to vessel traffic. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, wants to preserve offshore waters for training and national defense and carves out large areas as no-go zones. NMFS has a strong interest in ensuring both fisheries and endangered species issues are addressed.  And the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which holds permitting authority for offshore wind, must consult closely with all federal partners and states. 

The agencies continue to require coordination and CBI has supported them in a number of ways. CBI mediators have facilitated meetings to advance agency interaction around data, mapping, pre-permitting coordination, and stakeholder engagement. To help build consensus on the permitting process, CBI facilitates BOEM state task forces that seek to engage local to federal government agencies around key steps in offshore wind development planning, leasing, and permitting. 

Stakeholders Increasingly Demanding a Voice

Beyond the various government entities in the mix, an increasingly large set of stakeholders are demanding that their perspectives be heard and meaningfully considered. They are weighing in on whether proposed projects should advance, and, if so, where and how turbines should be placed in the water.  Discussions about wind speed, interaction among turbines, and geomorphology raise significant questions among stakeholders about impacts on habitat, transit, and fishing.  Developers are therefore finding it wise to engage other ocean users, from commercial and recreational fishermen, to divers, to environmental organizations, to understand how they will be affected by various project design choices.

And, these conversations are not straightforward. Many of these stakeholders have vied for their place and role in the ocean, in some cases, for centuries -- and are fiercely independent and diverse.  When a wind energy developer says, “I want to talk to commercial fishermen,” it is not always clear how to start the conversation. Commercial fishermen are hardly a single sector, but rather a complex business arrayed by species, port, gear type, season, and vessel size.   Scallopers certainly don’t speak for clammers, and New Bedford (MA) boat captains may have very different views than Point Judith (RI) captains. Offshore wind development is forcing traditionally diffuse users like commercial fishermen to find ways to organize and collaborate with one another, and with developers. 

CBI has been involved in a number of efforts to support stakeholders:

  • Facilitating stakeholder meetings as part of an oceans planning process to ensure that non-governmental entities had a role at the regional level 

  • Conducting stakeholder assessments in the Carolinas around issues such as view sheds and local economies

  • Working with BOEM and fishermen to help develop best practices for engaging fishermen with offshore wind developers

  • Facilitating Technical Working Groups on marine transport, economic development, commercial fisheries, and environment and ecosystems for New York state

Regional and Cumulative Impacts

While an uninformed observer might think that the scope of the problem is limited to the project’s footprint, each project inevitably has regional implications. For instance, will pile driving for the turbine’s base drive fish and other organisms to another area?  Permanently, or only temporarily?  Will construction or operations push endangered whales into greater (or lesser) boat traffic?  How should boats transit safely across multiple leases, each with its own layout of turbines?  Agencies, developers, and users all have to cooperate if they are to sort out these regional ripple effects, which can be cumulative, as development expands.

Wind development, while guided by federal statute, regulation, and policy, is a private and competitive activity.  Investors face competition at each stage of project development: from the sale of leases to the execution of power purchase agreements with utilities to winning state incentives for renewable development. But if each competitor ignores the other, they compound impacts and problems, from transit to habitat to relationships and trust among traditional ocean users.

CBI's work in this area has focused on helping develop a regional approach to safe passage. CBI mediators have facilitated workshops among fishermen, developers, and state and federal agencies on how to identify transit lanes within and near New England lease areas.  In addition, CBI has worked with the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA) to convene parties and wrestle with trade-offs across ports, lease areas, and gear types.

Ecosystem Effects – A Great Unknown

The development of offshore wind in U.S. is, in a sense, a grand experiment with high uncertainty, especially regarding effects on ecosystems. While there are studies from Europe, the results are not directly applicable to the U.S., given a number of differing factors. Numerous technical questions remain. As examples: will the construction and operation of turbines create reefs that might draw species and increase production?  Will offshore wind change the composition and extent of plankton, essential for so many species, and especially endangered whales?  And, how will you know offshore wind’s unique causes and effects when climate change is also causing rapid disruption?  These fundamental questions call out for regional research and some institutional means to fund, oversee, disseminate, and utilize the research and monitoring necessary to answer these questions over time. 

In support of developing regional ecosystem research in New England, CBI has worked with the New England Aquarium and BOEM to conduct a workshop and prepare proceedings for a  monitoring and research approach for marine mammals and seas turtles.  In addition, CBI is working with various stakeholders in New England and the Mid-Atlantic to help design new regional institutions that can jointly undertake research and help advance science that stretches beyond any one lease area or developer.

Offshore wind, for long time, a kind of pipe dream, is now accelerating rapidly.  There are positive signs that collaborative efforts may allow the industry to expand, while sustaining habitats and traditional uses. Agencies are working together, commercial fishermen are organizing through efforts such as RODA, wind energy companies are hiring liaisons and engaging stakeholders, and scientists are thinking about regional-scale, longer-term monitoring and research programs. 

However, with the acceleration of activity and interest, there is an ever-present danger that the speed of development will swamp relationships, cooperation, and trust. We hope that sustained commitment to collaboration from all will, instead, stave off the threat of locking in long-term structural conflict and all the human, financial, and institutional costs that such conflict entails. 


Photo credit: Finavon (no modifications) CC BY-SA 4.0