VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Each fall, the blackpoll warbler flies about 1,800 miles over the Atlantic -- potentially nonstop -- from the northeast United States to its winter home in South America.
Around the same time, the critically endangered right whale migrates from the Gulf of Maine, where it feeds, as far south as Florida to give birth.
The problem for biologists gathered at a conference here on offshore wind is not where the wildlife begins or ends its journeys -- it's how it gets there. The mystery could spell heartaches for offshore wind developers eyeing thousands of megawatts of projects off the coasts of Delaware, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the Interior Department is planning lease sales in the coming months and years.
The scientists discussed their new research efforts yesterday to gauge impacts from offshore wind farms at the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
"Trying to get that baseline information on where animals are, when they're there and in what numbers is surprisingly difficult," said Kate Williams, a researcher at the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine who is surveying wildlife density in the mid-Atlantic. "Even onshore, we have little understanding of migration routes for birds and bats."
The 468-megawatt Cape Wind project in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound, for example, has drawn a lawsuit from some groups that argue Interior failed to account for impacts to birds and endangered species, including right whales.
Although Cape Wind is backed by most environmental groups, other projects could face similar charges if federal agencies lack reliable data on marine wildlife and its sensitivity to disturbances. Threats include collisions with turbine blades, noise from mooring turbines to the seabed and collisions with the vessels that service them.
Williams' study, which began earlier this year, seeks data on bird, sea turtle and marine mammal abundance and movement in the mid-Atlantic.
The $4.5 million, three-year study includes researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, universities and the New England Aquarium and hopes to inform the siting and permitting of future projects in federal wind energy areas from Delaware to Virginia.
Researchers are taking a wildlife roll call, of sorts, using boat surveys, aerial images and satellite tracking to help site and streamline future wind projects, she said. Focal bird species include northern gannets, surf scoters, red-throated loons and peregrine falcons, according to the BRI website.
"The hope is by doing this region-scale project, we are providing the site characterization for agencies to use during reviews," she said of the federally funded project.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) earlier this year finalized an environmental assessment for offshore wind leasing off Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, but it must conduct more intensive reviews before individual project proposals can be approved.
Whales 'could be our undoing'
Much of yesterday's panel discussion revolved around the right whale, which some fear could become an Achilles' heel for offshore wind developers.
Once threatened by hunting, the whale's population sharply declined in the 1980s due in large part to entanglements with fishing gear and collisions with shipping vessels. The decline prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2008 to move shipping lanes and set speed limits at 10 knots per hour for larger vessels at certain times and areas, said Daron Threet, an energy attorney at Holland and Knight LLP.
Andrea Copping, senior program manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said a top offshore wind industry official told her at last year's conference in Baltimore that the right whale "could be our undoing."
"You need to know where the whales are," said Copping, who is leading a separate study that began in May into the whereabouts and sensitivity of right whales, and what developers can do to lessen their impact.
Right whales -- so named during hunting days because they were slow and hugged the coastline, making them the "right" species to target, according to Threet -- are believed to number between 300 and 600, Copping said.
Researchers fear they are vulnerable to noise from pile driving -- used to install turbines in the seabed -- which could disrupt mating, feeding and migration activities and possibly result in injuries. Vessel strikes are another significant concern.
Copping said her study will be delivered to the Energy Department in the next week but is yet to be made public. The findings could help BOEM design effective mitigation plans to minimize impacts, she said.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, disturbing right whales without a permit can result in a $10,000 fine per violation, Threet said. Knowingly violating the MMPA can result in prison time, he added.
He contrasted the Cape Wind project, which was permitted in shallow waters where right whales are not found, to a pair of liquefied natural gas projects off the Massachusetts coast in a "high risk" area for the whales.
"The Boston projects show that projects sited even in highly sensitive areas can move forward with adequate analysis and mitigation steps," he said.
In more good news for the industry, Stuart Clough, director of the wildlife consulting firm APEM Ltd., presented research showing red-throated loons and other bird species are more adaptable to offshore wind farms in Europe than previously understood.
"The impact of displacement, collision and barrier effects are not as bad as first thought at some sites," he said.
The preliminary findings for offshore wind farms contrasts to projects onshore, which have been blamed for killing golden eagles in California and threatening sage grouse and bats. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates hundreds of thousands of birds die each year from onshore wind turbines, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
Williams cautioned that there are inherent limitations to understanding how offshore wind farms will affect marine species.
For one, boat surveys tend to both attract and disburse wildlife, potentially skewing survey results, she said. And surveying generally ceases during inclement weather and at night with the exception of some acoustic monitoring, she said.
And although biologists are able to count birds and bats that were struck and killed by onshore turbines, efforts will be complicated at offshore farms, where carcasses will just sink or float away.
"It looks from existing data so far that collision isn't as big a problem offshore," she said. "But it's tough to know because we don't have any way to measure mortality."
Williams said there is also intense debate in industry and academia over how long developers should monitor wildlife at a project site before beginning construction, but that emphasis should be placed on threatened and endangered species.
And Copping said some acoustic surveying techniques fall short when tracking right whale mothers and their calves because they don't tend to vocalize like males and single females, rendering them invisible to monitors. Little is known, she added, about whether an offshore wind farm, once built, would offer whales a safe haven from boats or whether the whirring of turbines would disturb them.
Although most major environmental groups have strongly rallied behind offshore wind, some continue to fight Cape Wind over concerns that it will harm whales, federally protected sea turtles and several species of migratory birds.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and other conservation groups yesterday filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that the Interior Department's approval of the 130-turbine project in April 2010 violated the Endangered Species Act, MMPA and the National Environmental Policy Act.
"Nantucket Sound provides critical wildlife habitat to numerous rare species," said Kyla Bennett of PEER. "Cape Wind would destroy this vital habitat and harm the species that rely on it for feeding, breeding and migration. That's what makes this project so devastating."
The suit, which claims there are no reliable estimates on how many birds would be killed by the project's 440-foot-tall turbines, is one of a handful that have dogged the project since it was proposed a decade ago. Other suits targeting impacts to fishermen and aircraft have since been dropped or dismissed by federal judges.
Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon in Boston, said he supports Cape Wind, as do the vast majority of environmental groups in his state.
"It's not news," he said yesterday of the lawsuit. Clarke said Audubon traveled to Denmark to study offshore wind and conducted three years of its own studies by air, land and boat to ensure the Cape Wind project was safe for birds, he said.
Audubon and the Natural Resources Defense Council plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the project, he said.
While 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind have been installed globally, mostly in Europe, no projects have been built in the United States, where its cost is currently triple the cost of electricity from new natural gas plants and double the cost of power from onshore wind turbines, according to DOE. The price is expected to be significantly reduced as the offshore wind industry grows.
Developers have proposed 3,800 megawatts of offshore wind projects in U.S. waters, mostly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, and two have signed power purchase agreements, according to DOE.