FOIA docs raise questions about interference in wind project

By Benjamin Storrow | 03/22/2021 07:00 AM EDT

Federal regulators were close to approving the first major offshore wind project in the U.S. almost two years ago, according to internal documents. The unexplained delay points to potential interference by the Trump administration.

An illustration of the proposed Vineyard Wind project off the Massachusetts coast.

An illustration of the proposed Vineyard Wind project off the Massachusetts coast. Vineyard Wind

Federal regulators finished an environmental study of America’s first major offshore wind farm in the summer of 2019, according to documents newly obtained by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

But the review was never made public, and the timing of its completion raises fresh questions about whether the Trump administration interfered with Vineyard Wind’s pursuit of federal approval.

The documents suggest that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed a final environmental impact study by June 2019, and that it had prepared a record of decision for Vineyard Wind, an 800-megawatt project proposed in federal waters 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. NOAA Fisheries, a coordinating agency that had raised concerns over the bureau’s draft environmental study, appeared poised to support the decision.


Instead, the Trump administration called for additional analysis of the project, and never ultimately issued a ruling on it. The delay nearly derailed Vineyard Wind, and it hindered efforts to green the Northeast’s power grid with a large injection of renewables. Where Vineyard Wind had planned to start generating power in 2021, it is only now on the cusp of receiving a federal permit.

There have long been questions about whether Vineyard Wind’s woes were political or the result of legitimate deficiencies with its permit. Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said a cumulative impact analysis was needed to account for the impact of other offshore wind projects proposed for federal waters south of Massachusetts and Rhode Island (Climatewire, Aug. 12, 2019).

But industry representatives, state officials and environmentalists have long suspected political motives for the decision, noting former President Trump’s public disdain of wind and his administration’s penchant for moving quickly to permit oil and gas projects.

The documents released by NOAA Fisheries do not provide a complete picture of what happened with Vineyard Wind’s permit. Much of the correspondence is heavily redacted, but the emails suggest career staff at BOEM had completed their analysis by June of 2019.

NOAA staff were reviewing a final environmental impact study prepared by BOEM at the time. One email contains a lengthy document that is nearly completely redacted, except for a cover page that identifies it as a record of decision.

Current and former government officials with knowledge of the process confirmed that BOEM completed the permit and sent it to their superiors at the Interior Department for final approval.

"The decisions on Vineyard Wind were made on the DOI level," one official said, noting that BOEM staffers were not briefed about the delay. "I remember being confused because I did not know who made the decision."

The Biden administration has moved quickly to act on offshore wind permits. BOEM released Vineyard Wind’s final environmental impact study earlier this month and is poised to issue a record of decision in the coming weeks (Greenwire, March 8).

But the project’s past permitting troubles loom over its future. Vineyard Wind pulled its permit application in late December, just as BOEM appeared poised to rule on the project (Climatewire, Dec. 2, 2020).

The company said the decision was made to incorporate larger turbines into plans, but sources familiar with the company’s thinking have said concerns over how the Trump administration would rule played a role in the decision (Climatewire, Dec. 14, 2020).

BOEM accepted the revised application and allowed the permitting process to pick up where it had left off — a decision that has drawn the ire of fishing groups. Many observers expect fishermen to sue after a record of decision is issued.

A Republican official familiar with Bernhardt’s thinking defended the former secretary, saying he was convinced that the project would fail to withstand the legal challenges expected from fishermen without additional analysis. As a former lawyer who helped oil and gas companies navigate America’s environmental laws, Bernhardt was particularly attuned to how large infrastructure projects could be tripped up in court.

Still, the official did not rule out that politics played a role in the decision.

"You had an environmental expert secretary who wanted to make sure the project cleared every threshold, an industry that has never been through this process on a first-of-its-kind project that thought it was on the side of angels, and a White House that said crazy things all the time," the official said. "That storm came together at the same time."

The official expressed doubts that the final environmental impact statement released this month would survive a legal challenge, saying its cumulative impact analysis remained deficient.

A wind industry representative not associated with Vineyard Wind said many were inclined to give Bernhardt the benefit of the doubt following the delay, given his experience permitting large permits. But that view began to shift as the former secretary began meeting with fishing groups and the delay dragged on.

The representative was one of several people to describe as pivotal a July 2019 letter to BOEM from Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, which argued that the bureau’s draft analysis was incomplete (Climatewire, Nov. 15, 2019). The letter raised Vineyard Wind’s political profile and made it less likely that Bernhardt would approve the project.

"I really got the impression that he believed that [a study] needed to be done to make it less vulnerable and could be done in six months. Then, I think, after that, it all became political," the representative said.

It is not clear how the study released by BOEM earlier this month may have differed from the one the agency was prepared to issue at the close of 2020, or the version it completed in 2019. Some changes are all but assured, given updates in the project’s design and layout. Vineyard Wind adopted a new layout in the fall of 2019, placing turbines in a 1-nautical-mile grid in an attempt to assuage fishermen’s concerns over navigation (Climatewire, Nov. 19, 2020). The company’s decision to employ larger 13-megawatt turbines means the number of towers has fallen from 104 to 62.

Amanda Lefton, a former New York state official who was tapped by Biden to lead BOEM, declined to comment on any changes between the two administrations’ studies during a press conference last month.

"I can’t speak to the Trump administration and what the previous EIS looked like or their decisionmaking or what they had intended to advance," Lefton told reporters. "I can say that this represents a very rigorous process, having gone through multiple public comment periods and ensuring that there is adequate consultation with other federal agencies, stakeholders and tribal nations to ensure that we are well representing a diverse perspective in this final EIS."

BOEM officials did not respond to a request for comment. A NOAA Fisheries spokesperson declined comment, saying the agency "does not comment on internal deliberations."

The 2019 delay was not Vineyard’s first permitting mishap. A draft environmental impact study in 2018 was heavily criticized by NOAA Fisheries, which said the bureau’s analysis of the project’s impact on fish stocks was inadequate (E&E News PM, July 29, 2019).

A former political appointee in Trump’s Interior Department said there were also disagreements within NOAA about the agency’s ability to conduct annual surveys of fishing stocks amid the project’s turbines. NOAA staff in New England felt such surveys may be impossible while staff at agency’s headquarters believed new techniques could be developed. The concern over the surveys grew into a larger issue of how the NOAA would conduct such surveys as other projects came online and underscored the lack of cumulative analysis in the study.

BOEM was stuck in the middle, receiving conflicting feedback from the fishing experts regionally and those at NOAA’s headquarters, the official said.

The environmental impact study released this month acknowledges that installation of turbines could interrupt NOAA fishing surveys, and it commits to designing new studies to conduct the assessments.

It is not clear whether those disagreements were resolved by June of 2019, when emails show NOAA staff reviewing the environmental impact statement prepared by BOEM. One redacted email from a NOAA staffer dated June 4 contained the subject line "Draft non concurrence letter to Bill Brown," BOEM’s chief environmental officer.

Whether that letter was sent is unclear. Three days later, that staffer received an email from a colleague, titled "Some follow up about VW Joint ROD and our decision memo to adopt."

Another email on June 10 contained the subject line, "draft adopt memo to coincide with BOEM Joint ROD." ROD is short for record of decision. On June 12, staffers sent around talking points for Samuel Rauch, NOAA Fisheries’ deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs. The content of all those messages was redacted.

E&E News has filed an appeal to make the correspondence public.

Reporter Heather Richards contributed.