Government

Whitehouse Bill Would Tighten, Clarify Process of Approving Offshore Wind Projects

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U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has released an early draft of a proposed bill that would streamline the process of proposing, permitting, and building offshore wind projects, as well as moving the electricity they generate onto the grid.

The idea comes none too soon. For the past few years, and longer in some cases, Rhode Island fishers, shoreline residents, and preservationists have argued their concerns about offshore wind have gotten overlooked, ignored, or sidelined during the long sequence of federal and state reviews and permits required to build wind turbines off the coast of New England.

Within the past year, a citizens group and a preservationist group have filed civil lawsuits in state and federal courts, accusing various government bodies of pushing wind projects through the permitting process without adequate studies, even as wind developers and governments insist that all reviewing and permitting was legal and exhaustive.

Also, members of Rhode Island’s Fishermen’s Advisory Board, which advises the Coastal Resources Management Council, resigned en masse last summer, saying CRMC ignored their concerns.

Whitehouse’s proposed COLLABORATE Act (an acronym for Create Offshore Leadership and Livelihood Alignment By Operating Responsibly And Together for the Environment) would “improve permitting, coordination, and cooperation between agencies and with developers and stakeholders; establish a holistic process for offshore wind transmission; and boost support for fisheries and other potentially affected stakeholders, including the establishment of a compensation fund for eligible recipients.”

Apart from the task of permitting and building wind turbines, a lot of concern has been raised over preparing the existing electric grid to manage a greater flow of renewable electricity, especially as more buildings and vehicles are powered by electricity.

“Offshore wind is an abundant resource that we have to harness to meet our climate and clean energy goals,” Whitehouse said. “To unlock the full potential of offshore wind, we need to lower the barriers standing in the way of growth.”

The country’s first commercial wind farm consists of five turbines off the coast of Block Island, built in 2016. A large swath of the Outer Continental Shelf south and east of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Rhode Island has been designated as a wind-energy area. Strips of that seafloor land have been leased to developers.

Vineyard Wind, with a work staging area in New Bedford, Mass., has begun sending power to Massachusetts. The South Fork wind farm (12 turbines about 24 miles off the coast of Newport) is now operating and sending power to Long Island, N.Y. Revolution Wind (65 turbines, reduced from the original proposal for 100, about 15 miles from Newport) received permits last year and is under construction, to send power to Rhode Island and Connecticut. Permitting is underway for Sunrise Wind (100 turbines about 28 miles from Newport, although the final number of turbines has changed in earlier projects).

Some elements of Whitehouse’s COLLARBORATE Act include:

Creating a director for offshore wind in the White House;

Establishing a five-year leasing schedule for offshore wind;

Requiring federal agency engagement with stakeholders in the areas identified by the leasing schedule;

Conducting offshore wind planning area impact studies ahead of assessing commercial interest in a lease area;

Establishing designated project managers at agencies with permitting authorities;

Requiring timely meetings with Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and relevant federal agencies;

Cataloging of outreach and feedback from agencies and stakeholders in filing a construction and operations plan;

Setting a time frame to issue any outstanding agency authorizations following issuance of the record of decision; and

Placing offshore wind project judicial reviews with the court of appeals for the circuit in which the affected state is located.

In Rhode Island, the most recent and emotion-inducing resistance to an offshore wind project came Nov. 22, when the Preservation Society of Newport County and the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation on Block Island filed nearly identical lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against BOEM, the federal agency with final say in permitting an offshore wind project.

Specifically addressed the South Fork and the Revolution Wind projects, the Preservation Society asserted that, in its haste to allow the wind farm project, BOEM fast-tracked the review process and “violated federal laws” — such as the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act — “passed by Congress to protect the nation’s environmental and cultural resources.”

The lawsuits claim BOEM bypassed reviews of cultural and historic places and resources, and also failed to “consult adversely impacted communities very early in the project development process.”

In its allegation that BOEM raced through the permitting process, the law firm for the Newport-based Preservation Society, Cultural Heritage Partners, raised the specter that such behavior could happen again, with even more fearful results: “BOEM is setting a terrible precedent that significantly weakens the ability of those same laws to protect against … harms caused by every other type of industrial development, [such as] fracking on traditional Native American sites, building highways through the center of historically Black neighborhoods, or constructing coal-powered plants in low-income communities.”

The major concern by the Preservation Society is that turbines visible on the horizon would damage the “viewshed” from Newport, a place where views of the coast and the ocean are integral to the historic and cultural heritage of the place.

The Preservation Society said it did not oppose renewable energy and did not expect to stop the projects. The society said, “The goal of the appeals is to have projects properly permitted. …. We hope that a court will order BOEM to accurately assess the impacts on Newport and mandate appropriate changes reflecting a realistic assessment of those harms.”

The reaction to the Preservation Society lawsuit was swift. After the news appeared, 13 Rhode Island environmentalists, marine scientists, environmental academics, and labor union leaders sent a letter asking that the lawsuit be withdrawn and reiterating the urgent need for renewable energy.

“The climate crisis is the most severe threat faced by not only Rhode Island but all of humanity in the early 21st century,” the scientists, and academics wrote. “… you may or may not understand just how central offshore wind is to our state’s strategy to rapidly reduce emissions.”

An earlier civil lawsuit was filed in June by the Little Compton-based group Green Oceans against the CRMC, claiming the agency violated state law and its responsibilities when it permitted the Revolution Wind project. That suit is expected to return for its next hearing early this year in Newport County Superior Court.

Whitehouse’s proposed COLLABORATE Act would include the following provisions for topics of transmission and fisheries:

Offshore Transmission: Initiate a BOEM rule for permitting offshore wind transmission; identify offshore wind transmission cable corridors … and make such lines in such corridors eligible for federal transmission program financing; establish standards to integrate different offshore wind transmission technologies; directing to states to evaluate the incorporation of offshore wind onto their grid systems; and fund the research and development necessary to build an integrating offshore wind transmission network.

Fisheries: Establish a fund and a formula that would provide compensation from developers to affected stakeholders; create a gear loss program, modeled off of the existing program for offshore oil and gas; and set up two grant programs, one for research on the effects of offshore wind development on fisheries resources and one to fund technologies that support the coexistence of offshore wind development and other ocean users.

The press release on the COLLABORATE Act noted that it “would complement Whitehouse’s RISEE Act, which aims to create a new dedicated stream of funding from offshore wind development for coastal protection and resiliency, by capping bidding credits that developers can use in lease auctions to protect states’ offshore wind revenues.”

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  1. Way to go Sen Whitehouse. This bill would help get stakeholder concerns on the table earlier in the process and should lead to better outcomes with all parties. Should also accelerate critical renewable offshore wind projects into energy production quicker – something we need so desperately as the clock ticks on climate warming severity.

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