OFFSHORE WIND:

Interior leasing program seen as 'test case' for marine spatial planning

As the 27-agency National Ocean Council begins the formidable task of mapping out the myriad resources of the nation's oceans, lakes and coasts, some are looking to the Interior Department's offshore wind program for hints of how early planning can improve federal decisionmaking.

Interior's plan to expedite wind leasing and development off the Atlantic Coast is viewed by some as an early glimpse of the potential for coastal and marine spatial planning, or CMSP. The Obama administration initiative seeks to gather scientific data, mapping resources and input from ocean stakeholders to provide a framework for federal officials and investors to make informed decisions.

The idea is to ensure that ocean users -- commercial and recreational fishermen, shipping companies, wind developers, naval vessels and marine wildlife -- get a sustained bang for their buck, so to speak, without harming the environment.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes this week said Interior's "smart from the start" offshore leasing regime is one of the "first steps" of marine spatial planning. He spoke to hundreds of federal and local officials, scientists, conservationists and industry representatives Tuesday during a three-day workshop on CMSP at Interior headquarters.

"It provides a test case for us to see how we can work together with our state partners and among the federal family to bring the best information to the floor so that we make good decisions," Hayes said.

He cited early collaboration with the governors of 11 East Coast states, the creation of state-federal task forces and engagement with other federal agencies including the departments of Defense and Transportation, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as crucial to helping identify four "wind energy areas" the agency hopes to begin leasing by the end of the year.

A draft environmental assessment for the first wind energy area off New Jersey is expected to be released by the end of the month, according to Jim Lanard, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Offshore Wind Development Coalition (see related story).

Based on agency and public input, "We are revising downward the size of the areas and then we are going to go out with leases later this year for the first four mid-Atlantic states," Hayes said. "It is an exciting first step where we are bringing together some of the tools that are going to be essential to do the kind of regional coastal and marine spatial planning that we're talking about here."

Too much strategizing?

Hayes' comments come weeks after the National Ocean Council, which is made up of representatives of 27 agencies with oversight over the oceans and Great Lakes, released nine draft action plans that are intended to create the framework around which the National Ocean Policy will be built (E&ENews PM, June 2).

The spatial planning component is incorporated in some of those plans.

Some environmentalists have been critical of the framework for being too planning-oriented and lacking concrete steps to protect ocean resources (Greenwire, June 10).

"What we don't want to see happen is the whole thing get bound up in process," said Chris Mann, who works on ocean issues for the Pew Environment Group. "When we read through those [plan] outlines, a lot of it seems to put off the decisionmaking."

But Mann said Interior's wind planning was a promising, albeit imperfect, start to what he hopes will become a comprehensive planning framework for sound action to protect oceans and coasts.

But it will take time for the federal government simply to get an accurate accounting of the resources it has under its watch, Hayes said.

For example, the United States has 95,000 miles of coastlines, about a third of which are managed by Interior agencies, he said. The National Park Service has 84 ocean and coastal parks with 2.5 million acres of waters, and Fish and Wildlife Service has 180 coastal National Wildlife Refuges covering 121 million acres of coastal and marine habitat.

"That gives us a big stake in doing this coastal and marine spatial planning right," he said.

Lanard said marine spatial planning, while expected to take several years, could also help accelerate the permitting of individual wind farms.

"Down the road, it will probably make it easier for developers to get permission to build their wind farms because a lot of the studies will already be done," Lanard said. "There will still need to be environmental impact statements, but a lot of early vetting could make the process easier."

He said the process the departments of Interior and Energy went through to identify the first four wind energy areas was a "mini" marine spatial planning exercise.

"Let's look at all the different uses in an area that might be good for wind and let's throw out those that are the most problematic," Lanard said. "It could be shipping lanes, it could be military use, it could be essential fish habitat, it could be some weapons-grade material near the bottom that they don't want people going near, it could be a dump site, you name it."

In offshore Massachusetts, a request for interest in wind development drew concerns from commercial fishermen that prompted Interior to substantially reduce the size of the proposed development area.

While the move was blasted by House Republicans at a Natural Resources Committee hearing last month, Lanard said it was the type of compromise the offshore wind industry can live with and continue to expect in order to accommodate other ocean users.

"The commercial wind industry supported that," he said. "We certainly don't want to go into those fertile grounds."