Questions linger regarding offshore wind’s economic, environmental impact in the US

Published on
May 18, 2021

Beyond the Biden administration’s sunny outlook on prospects for a new U.S. offshore wind power industry, concerns among federal government experts continue to crop up about how building ocean turbine arrays could affect the fishing industry and the protection of endangered whales.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued its final record of decision on 11 May to permit Vineyard Wind, the 800-megawatt project off southern New England that would be the first truly utility-scale development in U.S. waters. 

So far, the only offshore wind operating in the country is at two pilot projects: the five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, which involves twin turbines with 12-megawatt total capacity. With nearly three decades of offshore wind experience in Europe, companies based there are exporting their expertise to the U.S.

But the Vineyard Wind plan as outlined in the BOEM decision document – a grid layout of 62 turbines spaced at 1-nautical-mile intervals – is so unnerving to some mobile gear fishermen that they may abandon fishing in the area, according to Army Corps of Engineers.

Commercial fishermen, led by the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, had advocated four-nautical-mile-wide vessel transit lanes, which they contend would enhance safety.

In its decision document, BOEM reasons that one-nautical-mile spacing will be sufficiently safe, while dedicated transit lanes could increase congestion and potentially collisions by funneling vessel traffic.

In another section of the document, U.S. Department of Interior officials summarized a push back they saw against the transit lane, during public comment on the Vineyard Wind draft environmental impact statement.

“Moreover, there were over 12,000 comments (some form letters and some unique submissions) on the supplement to the DEIS which opposed the addition of a vessel transit lane proposed under Alternative F. These comments were from the offshore wind industry, non-governmental groups, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and private citizens,” officials stated. “Only 3 percent of the total comments and speakers were in favor of the vessel transit lane and those primarily came from commercial fishermen or organizations representing them. These comments stressed the importance of a transit lane to enable the use of specific gear types within the lease area.”

The Department of Interior added that the primary “concerns with the inclusion of a transit lane focused on the precedent that may be set with the addition of transit lanes that would limit the potential of offshore wind leases to meet state demand and reduce economic benefits from offshore wind development.”

In announcing the BOEM decision, Biden administration officials cast it as the start of new industrial jobs.

“Today’s offshore wind project announcement demonstrates that we can fight the climate crisis, while creating high-paying jobs and strengthening our competitiveness at home and abroad,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor who worked to make her state government an early supporter of offshore wind development, said.

But in its contribution to the record of decision, the Corps of Engineers foresees a largely negative effect on southern New England fishing, based on fishermen’s belief they won’t be able to operate in the turbine array.

Jim Kendall, a former scallop captain and New Bedford-based fisheries consultant, said there is also widespread uncertainty how insurance companies will view risks associated with maneuvering near turbines.

“While Vineyard Wind will have beneficial impacts to the local economy, it is anticipated that there will be negative economic impacts to commercial fisheries…due to the placement of the turbines it is likely that the entire 75,614 acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries due to difficulties with navigation,” according to the Corps. “The extent of impact to commercial fisheries and loss of economic income is estimated to total [USD 14 million, EUR 11.4 million] over the expected 30-year lifetime of the Project. Vineyard Wind has established compensation funds for Massachusetts and Rhode Island fishermen to mitigate for the potential loss in economic revenue associated with the potential loss of fishing grounds. When considering these factors, the project as proposed is anticipated to have a negligible beneficial effect to local economics.”

In their contribution to the decision, NMFS officials outlined two major concerns: the effect of Vineyard Wind and other large arrays on fisheries surveys, and on the endangered right whale.

NMFS foresees “major adverse impacts to NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center scientific surveys … The adverse impacts to NMFS surveys will gradually increase in intensity and scope if future wind energy projects are approved throughout the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Ecosystem,” according to the decision document.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels that conduct the science surveys are restricted from operating closer that one nautical mile from wind installations, and NOAA aircraft used in surveys and whale monitoring will likewise be subject to flight height restrictions around planned turbines standing more than 800 feet above sea level.

Losing access to those areas will affect the “statistical design used in surveys and could create uncertainty in survey results for fish and protected species population assessments, affecting both protected species and fisheries management,” according to NMFS officials.

If fish stocks and environmental conditions cannot be observed inside wind energy areas, that could bring uncertainty into stock assessment, and “estimating fishery quotas could lead to unintentional underharvest or overharvest of individual fish stocks, which could have both beneficial and adverse impacts on fish stocks, respectively .... However, such lower quotas would result in lower associated fishing revenue that would vary by species, which could result in impacts on fishing communities.”

NMFS and BOEM are planning for a Federal Survey Mitigation Program within two years to address the problem, teaming the federal agencies and Vineyard Wind to develop the strategy, and “potential regional solutions that could be applied to future offshore wind projects.”

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of GE

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