BOEM chief on Vineyard Wind, Trump and offshore permitting

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2019

BOSTON — Few people have greater influence over the future of the American offshore wind industry than Walter Cruickshank.

As acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Cruickshank is charged with permitting a growing number of offshore wind projects planned for federal waters.

Some 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity have been proposed along the Atlantic Coast, and industry representatives are now exploring a push into deeper waters, installing floating turbines off California, Oregon and Maine. But so far, there’s only one 30-MW project in America, and mounting opposition from commercial fishing interests means permitting new ventures is a challenge.

That dynamic was on full display earlier this year, when BOEM’s parent, the Interior Department, announced it was adding an additional layer of environmental review to Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind project (E&E News PM, Aug. 9).

Interior said the review was needed to contemplate a raft of new projects under consideration in the Northeast. But the decision set the project back and prompted speculation that the Trump administration was seeking to clip a renewable revolution before it started (Climatewire, Aug. 12).

At the American Wind Energy Association’s offshore wind conference in Boston on Tuesday, Cruickshank said the administration is committed to moving the industry forward (Climatewire, Oct. 23).

Cruickshank later sat down with E&E News to discuss the Vineyard decision, the administration’s view of offshore wind and concerns from the fishing industry, among other topics.

I want to get a sense of where you’re at with Vineyard Wind, but also where you’re at with offshore wind in general. How are you approaching it programmatically?

So, for Vineyard Wind what occurred was a lot of feedback we got both from the public and from other federal agencies on the draft EIS [environmental impact statement] and particularly through the cumulative scenario, as well as some information on some additional data that would be useful for us to analyze that hadn’t been available to us before. So we’re doing a supplemental EIS to address those concerns. And our expectation is as we go through that process, then we will have a better record on which to place a decision.

It does slow Vineyard Wind down, obviously, from their original time frame. But we plan on having a supplemental EIS out early next year for public comment. And then where we go from there will depend very much on the nature of the comments we get, as to how quickly we can move to a final EIS and a record of decision. So the analysis we’re doing are part of the picture, but Vineyard Wind and the other developers are also talking with the Coast Guard, with the fishermen to try to see what they can do to adjust their plans to meet those concerns.

And what we think will come out of this process, even though its adding time, is not only a better analysis that will be helpful for our project going forward, but we think we’ll identify some best practices and project designs that will be applicable to others, as well, and give folks a good guidepost on what they need to do.

Is there a way you can actually do this where fishermen, mariners and offshore wind coexist?

I believe so. You’re never going to make everybody happy. There always will be some people that say, “You know, I’m not going to go in there even though I’m allowed to.” And there will be impacts. You build something of that scale, there will be impacts.

The question is, can we come up with a design that minimizes the adverse impacts and allows folks to successfully coexist, even though they’re not necessarily doing what is optimal for them, whether it’s the wind farm or the other industries that use the ocean. So that’s the goal of this process. We hope to come out as having some sense of how to design a project so that folks can successfully coexist.

When Vineyard Wind’s supplemental EIS was announced, everybody was wondering about politics. The president has been pretty outspoken about how he feels about wind in particular. What do you say when you get that question?

For us, it’s really about doing analysis and coming up with the right answer. Things changed dramatically from what we thought they were going to be in the way this industry would grow. And it’s clear that from the comments we’re getting, people aren’t concerned about any single project. We have a flood in New England, seven leases that are adjacent to each other with expectations from the developers that they’ll build something on every lease. And so people are saying, “Yeah, there’s one wind farm, I can live with that. I can get around right here.” They’re saying, “Well, what happens if there’s something on all of these? What’s that going to do to the resources we care about?”

And frankly, we’ve got new leadership in the department. They had some of the same questions. They want to understand what that looks like, what those impacts might be, how we can design and mitigate them and make sure we understand that and come up with some best practices before we approve the first project. Once you approve that first project, you’re sort of setting a template for everybody. And so it’s really important that we’ve thought through these issues and come up with what I think is the best answer off top. And that’s what we’re focusing on doing.

One presenter today mentioned how personally he took Interior’s Vineyard Wind decision. Folks up here, given the experience of Cape Wind, it was like, “Oh, here we go again.” But what I’m hearing for you is that this is real. You’re ultimately really trying to move things forward, even if it takes a little longer to get it done.

We are trying to take the long view here and lay the groundwork so that we can have a successful industry over the long term. We don’t want to be in a position unintentionally, of course, where decisions we make early on doesn’t have consequences that weren’t recognized or expected at the time, which can set the industry back immensely in terms of public support.

So it is really important that we be as careful and thoughtful as we can on these first projects so that we can have an industry that, I think, everybody would be in a position to say, “OK, they’re fully supportive or not.” I think we want to get to a place where there’s an understanding that, yeah, this is the best way to do this and let’s go ahead.

There was some back-and-forth between NOAA and BOEM over concerns about how the EIS was done. Has there been more interagency cooperation since?

One of the issues was NOAA wanted us to use some data that hadn’t been available to us, proprietary data that they control. We now have that data, and we’re working through an analysis. We’ve worked closely with NOAA and the Coast Guard to make sure that all agencies are on board with how we’re analyzing that data. And we’re starting to sit down with them again when we have the results. But yeah, we are working closely together. And really, the goal here is to make sure that when this work is done before, we put out for public comment, we’ve already had those conversations with the other federal agencies that are cooperating on this EIS and really have everybody comfortable saying, “Yeah, this is in good shape, let’s put this out for public comment and move forward.”

Let’s say we’re sitting here in a year’s time. What do you see the offshore wind picture looking like?

Well, certainly farther down the road, I would hope and expect we will have made a decision on Vineyard Wind, that we will be certainly further along on the other COPs [construction and operations plans] we’re looking at, if not potentially done with some subset of them. And that will have more COPs in that we’re working on. We’ll know when the next couple of lease sales are. So we’re going to keep working these issues. And I think we will move the ball forward and we will hit some milestones between now and a year from now. And what exactly will those decisions be? I don’t know at this point.

I’ve talked to fishermen about their concerns with Vineyard Wind and offshore wind more generally. And there is some concern from that industry that their concerns were not heard. I’m sure you’ve heard that. Have you guys been working to address that more directly?

We’ve had a lot of public meetings. Well over 100 meetings were dedicated to the fisheries industry or public meetings that they could attend. We put together some workshops that led to fisheries’ best management practices. And we can, you know, we’re happy to meet with them anytime they come in. But there’s always going to be those that say, “Well, yeah, I talked to them, but they obviously didn’t hear me because they didn’t do exactly what I want them to do.” And that’s not a fishing industry comment. That is comment on every stakeholder group I’ve met with over 30 years in government on any issue. You sit and listen, but it doesn’t mean that that’s the decision you’re going to make.

And, you know, we’re taking other steps, as well. We entered MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance and the National Marine Fisheries Service to try and make sure we’re engaging with local and regional fisheries early in the process for planning in any project and to try and make sure we’re addressing the research needs for understanding what may occur and monitoring what does occur.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.