Biden wants to launch 16 offshore wind farms. Can he?

Source: By Heather Richards, E&E News • Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2022

An offshore wind turbine near Block Island, R.I., this year.

An offshore wind turbine near Block Island, R.I., this year. John Moore/Getty Images

The agency tasked with realizing President Joe Biden’s offshore wind ambitions needs to move fast.

To meet the administration’s larger decarbonization goals, the White House wants to help raise 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 — a pledge that will require pushing 16 individual wind farms through the regulatory gauntlet by the end of Biden’s first term.

So far, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has only approved two of those farms.

“Industry is kind of concerned that projects aren’t quite getting through the permitting phase quick enough,” said Sam Salustro, vice president of strategic communications at the Business Network for Offshore Wind. “We really have to keep the pace up or even accelerate it to hit not only BOEM’s identified goals but our shared national goals.”

With the recent midterm elections ushering in a partial resurgence of GOP power on Capitol Hill, the pressure on the administration to future-proof the wind industry will only grow. This could become even more crucial if the levers of power fully flip with the 2024 election and a Republican president less keen on advancing renewables over fossil fuels is elected.

The politics matter because the offshore wind industry is at a pivotal moment — poised to rapidly expand in the United States but pressured by near-term challenges like rising costs and global competition for a limited number of resources to build and install thousands of turbines over the next decade (Climatewire, Nov. 15).

The pro-wind Biden administration has been a boon for many developers, who had grown skittish during the final days of President Donald Trump’s term, when progress in reviewing offshore wind farms ground to a halt and the sitting president uttered disparaging inaccuracies about the industry — like that noise generated from turbines cause cancer.

But despite the Biden administration’s aggressive policy blueprint for approving the first fleet of wind arrays off the nation’s coast, permitting takes time, a reflection of the pressure on the Interior Department’s small offshore energy agency as it seeks to build up its ranks.

“They’re building the muscle memory to do it, building up their capacity,” said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind at the American Clean Power Association and a former lawyer at Interior advising BOEM’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs. “It’s still a relatively new program.”

Permitting has long been a pinch point for offshore wind in the United States, where currently a two-turbine pilot project off the coast of Virginia is the only one that’s finished construction in federal waters. The five-turbine project near Block Island in Rhode Island is located in state waters.

The largest hurdle to getting projects to construction is BOEM’s completion of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, that consists of thousands of pages detailing a project’s specific impacts on everything from sea turtles and migratory birds to marine life and air quality. Each wind array’s construction and operations plan requires this environmental review, which BOEM says generally takes about two years to complete.

The two wind farms BOEM has advanced through the EIS to approval are Vineyard Wind off the coast of Massachusetts and South Fork Wind, which will serve New York. Both are scheduled to finish construction and start operating next year.

To date, wind developers have filed 17 other construction and operation plans with the bureau. Ten of those have entered the environmental review process. But only three projects have advanced to a draft EIS: proposed arrays off the coasts of Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.

Most of the construction and operations plans that BOEM is fielding stacked up during the Trump administration, a backlog that helped inspire the Biden administration’s target of clearing 16 wind arrays by 2025.

When the Biden administration took over it was like “a dam that was released,” said Kaplowitz. “BOEM is playing catch-up.”

Since taking office, the Biden administration has marshaled resources to ease the growing logjam of projects, observers acknowledged, perhaps most importantly by working with Congress to direct cash to the bureau to hire dozens of new staff.

That’s been a priority for Amanda Lefton, a former New York state official who was appointed as BOEM director in February 2021 and immediately begin swelling the then-30-employee office of renewable energy programs (Greenwire, May 24).

BOEM has enlarged that crew, expanding to roughly 70 people. It’s also borrowed expertise to meet wind demand from regional offices like the one in the Gulf of Mexico — the bureau’s largest regional office and one historically focused on offshore oil and beach restoration.

Casey Hammond, the assistant secretary for lands and minerals management during the latter half of the Trump administration, said even with a larger staff the offshore wind boom creates a heavy workload and change of pace for BOEM employees.

“That’s a lot to put on the plates of those guys,” said Hammond, while noting that he has “100 percent” confidence in BOEM Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank, a career staffer, and his team. “But the reality is also a difficult challenge. This administration is about two years in, I know they are running into challenges.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. BOEM has projected confidence in public statements about hitting its targets.

“The Department of the Interior is making significant progress toward achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s ambitious offshore wind energy goals,” spokesperson Tracey Moriarty said in a statement.

While permitting arguably remains the bureau’s heaviest burden, BOEM has been increasingly busy chasing Biden’s objectives in other ways. It’s held offshore wind auctions off the coast of New York and North Carolina, while also planning first-ever sales in the Pacific Ocean, for next year, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico and potentially in the Gulf of Maine. Most recently, BOEM also began planning where additional Atlantic offshore wind lease areas will be located.

The sales represent a likely pipeline of offshore wind development in the coming years, from leasing to construction and operation, something players in the nascent industry say is needed to catalyze a robust domestic supply chain that will harness more jobs, service companies and manufacturing. But each new lease sale will also generate more for BOEM to do, as developers begin filing the second tranche of offshore wind projects that need environmental reviews to build in U.S. waters.

Hammond said part of the challenge BOEM has long faced in getting environmental reviews across the finish line is coordination with other agencies, a nod to 2019 disagreements between BOEM and NOAA Fisheries over Vineyard Wind that slowed down the first utility-scale project approved in the United States (Climatewire, Oct. 25, 2019).

“Whenever you’re working across agencies … you’re going to have different perspectives, because you have your own statutory responsibilities,” Hammond said. “That pressure is always going to be there, that friction.”

The Biden administration made an early point of acknowledging its commitment to aligning its offshore wind goals across agencies, and particularly with the Department of Commerce — the parent agency of NOAA Fisheries (Climatewire, Feb. 12, 2021).

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told industry at the offshore wind Ventus Awards Gala on Nov. 17 that the administration was working to “get permitting right in a speedy time frame,” but “without cutting corners.”

“Every one of these projects is complicated and requires that collaboration, innovation and new models,” she said, according to reporting by Recharge News.

That focus on speed has sparked pushback, particularly from groups that already view offshore wind’s growth as threatening.

The fishermen’s group Responsible Offshore Development Alliance has repeatedly accused the industry, BOEM and the Biden administration of moving too fast, even citing the Biden administration’s wind targets in its 2021 lawsuit against the Interior Department over the approval of Vineyard Wind.

The lawsuit, which alleges that Interior moved too swiftly and failed to consider impacts in its environmental review of the wind project, cites the sharp increase in BOEM’s renewables budget during the last two fiscal years as evidence that the agency is overtasked with the sudden scale of its offshore wind work.

“It’s rush, rush, rush, rush because of climate change, right? And because of some political goals,” said Annie Hawkins, RODA’s executive director. “Like, can we push the pause button?”

Fishermen have been at odds with BOEM over the industry’s potential impact to fishing grounds and safe navigation through wind energy areas. They’ve also disagreed with some offshore wind developers over the amount of money they will receive from companies as compensation for reduced catches.

Their concerns are being echoed by some GOP lawmakers who could try to put a spotlight on the administration’s pace even before the 2024 elections.

New Jersey Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, who flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2019, recently announced his “complete opposition” to offshore wind off the south Jersey coast and promised an adversarial stance to the Biden administration’s ambitious targets.

“I will hold hearings and I will get answers,” Van Drew said in an October statement, alluding to the GOP’s new power to pull in Biden officials for questioning after they won back a slender majority in the House.

Politics aside, Jason Hill, who served as Interior’s deputy solicitor for energy and mineral resources during the Trump administration and was a longtime trial attorney at the Department of Justice’s natural resources division, said the test of the administration hitting its offshore wind targets is largely one of leadership and planning at this point.

Hill said Interior during the Obama administration focused on advancing renewables through focus teams. The Trump administration took a different approach, advancing energy projects at the department through a commitment to time limits on environmental reviews.

Even with just two years left, he said the Biden administration’s goals aren’t out of reach.

“If they’ve got the right priority and backing from the policy people, and [they] focus on getting these projects done, they should be able to move pretty swiftly and efficiently through the permitting process,” Hill said.

In the meantime, BOEM is being closely watched by industry.

Salustro, with the Business Network for Offshore Wind, described a positive snowball effect resulting from consistent, reliable permitting timelines. There is a “direct correlation” between how much this industry entrenches and BOEM hitting the administration’s target, he said.