Top climate hawk bashes first big offshore wind project

By Benjamin Storrow, Heather Richards | 11/15/2019 06:56 AM EST

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a leading advocate for climate action, has been critical of a proposed 85-turbine project that would reduce emissions in Massachusetts. Whitehouse, a Democrat, says his state of Rhode Island has set a better example for how to build offshore wind facilities.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading advocate for climate action, has criticized a proposed offshore wind farm in Massachusetts.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading advocate for climate action, has criticized a proposed offshore wind farm in Massachusetts. Cheriss May/ZUMA Press/Newscom

For the past seven years, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has given a weekly address about the dangers of climate change. Increasingly, some greens wonder if he is full of hot air.

The Rhode Island Democrat, one of the Senate’s top climate hawks, has emerged as a leading critic of Vineyard Wind, an 84-turbine offshore wind project proposed in federal waters 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Whitehouse has questioned the federal government’s review of the project, the first large-scale development of its kind in the United States, and criticized Vineyard Wind for failing to adequately consult fishermen.

His barbs have raised eyebrows in climate circles and in Massachusetts, where Vineyard Wind has the enthusiastic backing of the state’s political establishment, and comes as the Trump administration weighs the future of the project.


In August, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called for an additional round of environmental review of the project (Climatewire, Aug. 12). A division of Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is currently conducting a cumulative impact study of other offshore wind projects proposed for the area.

In an interview, Whitehouse said he was simply pushing for improvements to BOEM’s permitting process to better accommodate the concerns of fishermen and other ocean users.

He argued that Vineyard Wind had already settled on the design of its project with investors before taking input from fishermen. And he cited the Block Island wind farm, a five-turbine project built by Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind, as an example of how wind developers should approach fishermen’s concerns.

"We’ve had the same position all along from the very beginning, which is that if you do it the traditional Massachusetts way, the Cape Wind way, you end up with a disaster, because you end up with a huge, long battle," Whitehouse said, referring to the controversial Massachusetts wind project that was canceled in 2017 after a two-decade fight. "If you do it the Rhode Island way, which was the Deepwater Wind way, you end up with steel in the water and electrons on the grid."

Environmentalists said they were dismayed by Whitehouse’s position. They disputed his characterization of Vineyard Wind’s efforts to minimize its impact on the marine ecosystem, pointing to the agreement the developer voluntarily struck with environmental groups to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Some expressed alarm that a traditional ally was giving the Trump administration a potential excuse to cancel the project.

"Given Sen. Whitehouse’s undisputed stature as a climate leader, it has been really disconcerting that his focus has been less on solutions and more on sniping," said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an influential environmental group in New England. "Climate leaders need to be using their influence to help resolve these challenges rather than making broad-brushed criticisms that play to the interests of renewable energy opponents and climate deniers."

Supporters of the project questioned whether it was fair for Whitehouse to compare Vineyard Wind with Deepwater Wind, a five-turbine project, or Cape Wind, which was proposed before the federal government had a policy for leasing tracts of ocean for offshore wind development.

Mark Kresowik, eastern deputy director for the Sierra Club, called Vineyard Wind’s mitigation efforts "above and beyond," noting the company had not only committed to protecting the right whale, but with working with organized labor.

"I think, the senator’s comments notwithstanding, Vineyard Wind has done a lot of incredible things," Kresowik said. "It is time to move forward here."

The squid lobby

Whitehouse’s criticisms of Vineyard Wind highlight the challenges facing climate hawks as they push for deep emission reductions. Offshore wind appears poised for a boom along the Eastern Seaboard, as states from Massachusetts to North Carolina consider projects that can slash carbon dioxide emissions and breathe new life into struggling ports.

But proposals to develop some 25,000 megawatts of new offshore wind projects have generated concern from fishing interests, which worry about the impacts on the marine ecosystem and their industry (Climatewire, Sept. 6).

Whitehouse’s statements echo concerns of Rhode Island squid fishermen, who have emerged as leading opponents of Vineyard Wind. They contend the developer and BOEM have failed to substantively consider their concerns, all while underestimating the value of the squid catch in the proposed development area. The bureau put the combined value of the squid, mackerel and butterfish catch in the area at around $340,000 in its draft environmental impact statement.

Greens maintain that climate change represents a greater threat to fishing. At a time when warming waters are prompting coral reef die-offs, the United States can ill afford a repeat of the two-decade fight over Cape Wind, said Nathanael Greene, a renewable energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said Eastern states will not be able to reduce pollution from power plants and meet their climate goals without offshore wind.

Greene declined to talk about Whitehouse specifically, calling him "a leader on these topics generally," but said, "We need all our leaders pulling in the same direction, but we have to do it right."

The drama over Whitehouse’s statements began in the summer, when the senator and the three other members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation signed a letter to BOEM calling on the bureau to improve its collection of fisheries data. Whitehouse followed up by telling Axios last month that Vineyard Wind was setting "a very bad example for the industry."

Border war

Whitehouse’s comments have been received coolly in Massachusetts, where Vineyard Wind represents the centerpiece of Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) climate agenda and a key thrust of his attempts to breathe investment into the state’s economically struggling ports along the south coast. State officials complained to The Boston Globe in July that they had been blindsided by the Rhode Island congressional delegation’s concerns.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs defended Massachusetts’ efforts to ease conflict between fishing and offshore wind interests. The state, she noted, had set up a fisheries working group as a forum to handle those issues.

"The administration is proud of the work that’s been accomplished in an effort to expeditiously reduce energy costs and carbon emissions while preserving environmental resources and supporting the state and region’s vibrant fishing industries," Katie Gronendyke, the spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

A 2016 Massachusetts law calls for Bay State utilities to contract for 1,600 MW of offshore wind. (The state has since increased that requirement to 3,200 MW.) State regulators last year approved a contract for Vineyard Wind to provide the first 800 MW, or enough to power about 400,000 homes.

The Massachusetts law sounded the starting gun for a nascent wind boom along the Eastern Seaboard, with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland all approving plans for large amounts of offshore wind. In Rhode Island, the Danish wind giant Ørsted A/S is partnering with Eversource Energy on a 700-MW offshore wind project that will provide electricity to consumers in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

A rejection of Vineyard Wind by the Trump administration would represent a setback for all those projects, said Rep. Bill Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat who represents Cape Cod and the state’s south coast. Vineyard Wind’s failure, he said, would only breed uncertainty in the industry, threatening investment and potentially hampering economic growth.

Asked if he had raised those concerns with Whitehouse, Keating said, "Well, I’ll leave it at this: We have conversations, they continue to be productive, and we’ll keep them to ourselves."

Keating said he appreciates the difficulty Whitehouse faces in balancing the concerns of fishermen next to the economic potential of offshore wind. He represents New Bedford, Mass., America’s largest commercial fishing port, and has heard similar concerns about offshore wind from some constituents. But he added: "I really feel an urgency and I feel an imperative that we have to go forward on this. This is gonna be great for our economy."

Vineyard Wind, in a statement, did not directly address criticism from Whitehouse. But the company pushed back against the notion it had failed to conduct adequate outreach to fishermen.

The company held 100 meetings with fishermen in 2017 and 2018; hired the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology to conduct fisheries research; and struck a $17 million deal with Rhode Island fishing regulators to compensate fishermen for their losses. Fishermen have roundly criticized that deal as inadequate.

"Vineyard Wind was the first American developer to hire a fisheries representative, a practice we are proud to build on today as we submit new bids for clean, safe and reliable energy to serve New York and New England, where project staff have been working since 2009," said Brendan Moss, a spokesman for the company. "The insight of fishermen and fisheries research scientists is invaluable as we work to develop the first utility scale offshore wind farm of its kind in the United States and help states respond to climate change as soon as possible."

Carbon consequences

In climate terms, Vineyard Wind is a key element in Massachusetts’ wider push to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act mandates a 25% reduction in CO2 from 1990 levels by 2020. The commonwealth’s CO2 emissions declined 21% between 1990 and 2016, according to the most recent state statistics, falling from 94 million tons in 1990 to 75 million tons three years ago. Vineyard Wind, a partnership of Avangrid Inc. and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, estimates it will reduce emissions by 1.68 million tons annually.

Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sought to strike a diplomatic tone when asked about Whitehouse, whom he frequently partners with on climate issues.

"We’re working very hard right now to move to a new process, to resolve the issues and to hopefully reach a win-win on Vineyard," Markey said. "Because of the [BOEM] delay we can have conversations to reconcile, and that would be something he and I would be interested in participating in."

A Whitehouse spokeswoman bristled at suggestions the Rhode Island senator opposed Vineyard Wind, calling him a champion of the industry and pointing to a letter the senator sent to BOEM this week calling on the bureau to complete its review of the project.

Whitehouse, for his part, said he was unsure of what to make of Bernhardt’s call for an additional review of Vineyard Wind.

"Time and his behavior will tell," Whitehouse said. "But I think there’s some reason for caution, given the bad way that Vineyard Wind started. If their process had been better and their application was less controversial, the BOEM process might have gone more smoothly; it might be sited now and moving on to other projects. I want to see a lot of projects developed."

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.