Opinion

Research Offshore Wind Before Taking Stance on the Issue

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Have you wondered who has rights to where the offshore wind (OSW) turbine projects are being developed?

As an American, principally you do, because all are in federal waters. Like the national parks, no private party owns the coastal waters. Some private parties may own a lease to the coastal regions, such as oil resources, and also offshore wind development. These leases are granted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Here’s the frank truth on BOEM leases: coastal property owners don’t own their view and commercial fishermen own licenses to fish in an area, but they don’t own the area.

BOEM has more than a dozen federal and even more state laws that it must abide by to grant leases and approve offshore wind projects. These principally include the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), and National Marine Fisheries (NMF) regulations. Several groups against offshore wind have filed lawsuits or appeals that claim BOEM and other federal or state departments did not follow appropriate practices for some of these laws.

The five turbines off Block Island in Rhode Island state waters constituted the first offshore wind farm in the United States and is an important research site. The turbines were a novelty and have been cited as a positive tourist attraction. That argument is misleading because the hundreds of turbines off the southern New England coast will not be a tourist magnet. There will be some negative effects on tourism but there are only estimates based on surveys. Offshore wind developers know this and have made offers for compensation to coastal communities, called “good neighbor agreements.” Nantucket signed the first one of these. Regardless, coastal property owners do not own the rights to an unobstructed horizon with nominally 900-foot turbines 12-35 miles offshore. The nearest ones will be readily visible on very clear days but not on typical hazy summer beach days. At 20-25 miles offshore, turbines will be noticeable on clear days but only if you look with care.

Some argue that there may be improved sport fishing around turbine bases, as observed around the Block Island turbines. However, claims that offshore wind will benefit fishing are misleading. The offshore wind developers and the commercial fishermen know there will be some loss of fishing area. That is why the developers have identified plans to compensate commercial fishermen for reduced access. There is an area south of Rhode Island named Cox’s Ledge which is a very productive commercial fishing area. The fishermen are claiming that wind turbines should not be built anywhere on the greater Cox’s Ledge area for several reasons that relate to their income source and fish species. BOEM excluded some areas of the Revolution Wind and South Fork projects to protect the most important fishing areas there. The key is that they have a licensed right to fish in a NOAA-defined area, but they do not have a comprehensive right to use all of that entire area and exclude offshore wind development.

Everyone should have a concern for the livelihood of commercial fishermen. Tourism is also a significant summer industry for coastal states. Everyone certainly should be concerned about the need to generate ever more electricity from renewable sources like wind to reduce dependence on fossil fuel combustion, which is warming and acidifying the ocean at a significant rate.

There are groups that oppose offshore wind development. They are primarily coastal property and business owners and also commercial fishermen. Both will have some negative impacts from OSW. There are more than a dozen Facebook groups that articulate many dozens of arguments why offshore wind is a not a good idea. There are some points made that should be discussed, such as fair considerations to the tourist industry and commercial fishermen. Much of the rest of information on these sites is misinformation or untruths, such as offshore wind will cause the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale. Good neighbor agreements for where the power could come ashore should also be discussed, but arguments that it should not come ashore anywhere is an obstruction to progress on the transition to renewables.

There is also silent opposition to renewable energy by the fossil fuel industry. You can be sure that their lobbying and dark money contributions are influencing the arguments against offshore wind. Know that fossil fuel companies are primarily concerned about their future profits and offshore wind will limit some. Indeed, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a fossil fuel advocacy group, has funded at least one federal lawsuit and a PR media campaign against offshore wind. Interestingly, maybe as a hedge and not as an environmental danger, fossil fuel companies have investments in some of the OSW development projects.

Considering ownership, the federal coastal waters belong to the nation, not to fishermen or coastal property owners. Moreover, we all also are owners of the consequences and costs of global warming and sea level rise resulting from fossil fuel combustion. While offshore wind development will have some limited negative effects on tourism and commercial fishing, the consequences of not rapidly moving off fossil fuels will have much greater effects as the globe approaches the 1.5-degree Celsius Paris Accord limit this year or surely in the next few. Despite its limited downsides, offshore wind has a high energy generation potential and it must be not be excluded in the urgent need for a transition to renewable energy sources.

It is essential to read about, think about, and support offshore wind development and other non-CO2 emitting power generation technologies. To read more about the merits and downsides, here are some sources. Don’t accept any single pro or con information source on what you should think about offshore wind.

Realoffshorewind.com. A nominally pro OSW site created by Brown and URI professors.

Offshore Wind Info on Facebook. Though I am biased for OSW, I try to present factual information from pro and con perspectives.

Sea Grant Offshore Wind Energy seagrantenergy.org. A site from URI School of Oceanography which tries to promote an unbiased perspective.

https://green-oceans.org/white-paper-1. This is a document by a determined coastal anti-OSW group that is well organized and well funded, with a federal and state lawsuit. Their arguments were critiqued in a report by a Brown University group.

https://www.climatedevlab.brown.edu/anti-offshorewindnetwork. You can decide and act on what you think is best for your future and maybe your grand kids or those to be.

Tom Clemow is a Little Compton, R.I., resident and advocate for renewable energy, including offshore wind.

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  1. It is true that as Americans, we all principally have the right to decide what happens in federal waters. The ocean is like a national park, no private party owns the coastal waters. Just as “coastal property owners don’t own their view and commercial fishermen own licenses to fish in an area, but they don’t own the area”, private foreign-owned corporations have no right to construct thousands of massive interlocking permanent piledriven industrial machines in those areas. This is an enclosure of The Commons. “Considering ownership, the federal coastal waters belong to the nation” and they should be protected for everyone, not some special interest industry, be it rebuildable energy or fossil fuel energy.

    coastal property owners don’t own their view and commercial fishermen own licenses to fish in an area, but they don’t own the area”, why do private foreign-owned corporations
    “Considering ownership, the federal coastal waters belong to the nation, not to fishermen or coastal property owners.”

  2. Foreign corporations also do not own these areas, they purchase the rights to do so that are codified in the leases BOEM sells to them. Leasing policy is derived from the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Energy Policy Act that were enacted by Congress, and ostensibly* reflect the democratic will of the people. This has been happening for the better part of a century in the offshore oil and gas industry in the U.S. Ultimately the winners of those wind leases pass the lease cost onto the electricity rate payers to the extent that they are able to, so in effect it is just a transfer payment. The fed gov gets the lease payment which is roughly equal in size to the aggregate additional cost ratepayers pay, so it’d be a wash if the lease payment was distributed back to ratepayers. However, using a competitive price-based leasing process has the nice side effect of using competition in the lease auctions to ensure that the lowest cost developers are the ones that win the leases, helping the nation use its oceans’ resources efficiently and providing energy at the cheapest possible price.

    * Ostensibly for a variety of reasons, but one of the major ones is that the law gives a lot of discretionary power to BOEM to set the specific terms/rights of the leases, and wind energy lease terms have been changing rapidly over the last decade without much scientific support for many of the changes or public awareness of how these affect direct and indirect outcomes.

  3. Carl, the leases are sold to parties based on the dollars not Euros bid in the auction. European corporations have been the winning bidders because they have more experience in the risk/reward of offshore wind (OSW). Some US corporations are partial owners of the leases so characterizations that European corporation ownership is “wrong” or unfair to Americans simply because Federal offshore wind subsidies might go to them is an isolationist point of view. If you think isolationism and separation from global capital is better for America, help the readers and simply declare it. Unlike Europe, America is a latecomer in OSW technology though not in many others. The US has gained significance in information technology and AI. We don’t hear Europe banning or trying to keep it out. Americans are influenced to think we are are the the most creative and wisest nation. Good on some but not all. Consider what Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance kid, “Who are those guys”? European corporations are not picking an American pocket. They know more than we do for now. Consider, the US fossil fuel industry dark money could have bought the leases and purposely delayed OSW development. Instead, some primarily European fossil fuel companies are hedging their future maybe similar to how Orsted divested almost all of their fossil fuel assets a decade ago. As of May 2024, no US fossil fuel corporation has an investment in US OSW but at least four European ones do. US fossil fuel corporations have lobbied for and received subsides for many decades. Seems they have a historical preference for stepping up which US federal handout line.

  4. Good comment Carl. Just internet data centers have a significant carbon footprint not counting what AI use may do. Some of the largest data companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have sustainability plans and 100 percent renewable targets. I’m not sure what organizations are monitoring those plans. Through solar panels on my barn, I have produced more power than I consumed over more than four years. Do you have solar panels on your residence or are you a participant in a community solar or renewable project? Do you pay the supply premium for 100 percent renewable from groups like https://www.greenenergyconsumers.org/

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