Offshore wind farms could have a major "adverse" impact on commercial fisheries, according to a long-awaited analysis from the Interior Department released yesterday.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s draft supplemental environmental review for Vineyard Wind — the first anticipated large-scale wind project in the United States — arrives nearly a year after a final decision on the project was expected.
BOEM delayed a final environmental analysis at the eleventh hour last summer and announced the launch of the supplemental review, arguing that the rapid expansion of offshore wind proposals and coastal state wind procurement policies necessitated a broader examination of wind’s foreseeable impacts (E&E News PM, Aug. 9, 2019).
The supplemental study, which is to be published in the Federal Register at an unspecified time, looks beyond Vineyard Wind — which is planned off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. — and outlines a host of effects that the burgeoning offshore wind sector in the Northeast could have on other industries, the environment and marine life.
It notes, for example, major cumulative impacts to commercial and recreational fishing, scientific research, and in some cases environmental justice across a suite of development scenarios. Additionally, moderate cumulative impacts are expected to marine mammals and minor cumulative impacts to air quality.
BOEM also notes industry concern that offshore wind turbines and transmission cables risk entanglement with fishing vessels and gear, and that wind farms could result in the temporary or permanent displacement of fishermen in some areas.
Overall, Vineyard Wind and the potential build-out of other offshore wind projects are anticipated to affect fisheries negatively due to navigational hazards, displacement of fishing areas and habitat changes to fishing, according to the document. Future projects could mitigate these impacts, the analysis notes.
The study used a "reasonably foreseeable" development scenario for offshore wind that incorporates the 22 gigawatts of total state commitments to buy offshore wind power in the Northeast.
The document makes some additions to a draft environmental review of the Vineyard project that was finalized in 2018, including the contemplation of a broad transit lane to transect the wind farm and allow for vessel navigation. The lane was proposed to BOEM in January by the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, the study notes.
RODA Executive Director Annie Hawkins said in a statement yesterday that the group approved of BOEM’s direction at first blush but was still considering details.
"At a first glance, RODA sincerely thanks BOEM and the Secretary of Interior for considering additional alternatives that would provide much-needed safe transit options for fishermen," she said. "As is clear from our previous comments, we also agree with the re-characterization of fisheries impacts as ‘major’ and will provide more detailed comments as to these impacts and the content of the SEIS in the near future."
The draft EIS, however, had not considered the cumulative impact of wind on fisheries across the Northeast.
A Bernhardt intervention?
The utilization of broad transit pathways for fishermen has been a sticking point for offshore developers in New England, which last year suggested a uniform layout for spacing with buffers of 1 nautical mile between turbines for vessel navigation to try to appease industry.
The Coast Guard recently released a study advising BOEM that larger transit lanes, as proposed by some fishermen, were not necessary for safe navigation, a decision that bolstered offshore wind developers’ position against that of many fishermen (Energywire, June 4).
The deputy sector commander of the Coast Guard in southeastern New England later posted on LinkedIn, though, that the Coast Guard continued to work on the topic "to ensure that offshore wind is developed in a manner that provides safe navigation through wind farms and allows for traditional uses of those waterways."
The analysis will have a 45-day public comment period. According to BOEM’s schedule, the final decision on Vineyard Wind is to be completed by the end of the year.
"We expect to make a formal announcement and provide more detail soon," Stephen Boutwell, a spokesman for BOEM, said in an email yesterday.
BOEM surprised the offshore wind industry when it proposed the supplemental study last year.
The industry had broadly expected the Vineyard environmental review to conclude and a decision to be made by the end of summer 2019. Vineyard briefly signaled that BOEM’s delay could threaten the viability of the project but later eased that narrative. The company — a joint project of Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners — said it had adjusted to fit the new permitting timeline.
The federal delay prompted some to question whether Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had intervened on behalf of the fishing industries. The secretary has not been viewed as a proponent of the wind industry in comparison with his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, who had been a vocal advocate for growing offshore wind until he resigned in 2018.
BOEM officials have noted that the new Interior leadership had raised questions about the full range of impacts from the offshore wind sector (Climatewire, Oct. 24, 2019).
In a statement yesterday, Vineyard spokesman Andrew Doba said the company was pleased to see the draft supplemental published and looked "forward to engaging with the agency and the many different stakeholders as we continue to make our way through this important public process."