‘Holding our breath.’ Industry jitters in Trump’s last days

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 15, 2020

America’s offshore wind industry is anxiously awaiting President Trump’s exit.

While the industry broadly greeted President-elect Joe Biden’s win last week, the current occupant of the White House could still set the industry back before he leaves.

Trump has never hidden his disdain for wind energy, falsely claiming that turbines can give people cancer. But his administration has been something of a black box for offshore wind developers and opponents of the giant turbines alike.

Permitting and leases have moved forward under Trump, but no major project has crossed the finish line.

The stakes are highest for Vineyard Wind, a proposed 84-turbine development off the Massachusetts coast and the first utility-scale project planned in the United States. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which permits offshore facilities, was expected to release a final environmental review today.

Instead, BOEM said it expects to release that review on Dec. 11 and make a final decision on Jan. 15, five days before Biden will be inaugurated.

The big question facing Vineyard Wind is whether federal regulators will require the developer to allow commercial fishermen to pass through the project along large transit lines. The move is opposed by the developer, but fishermen say it would make navigation safer (Climatewire, June 15).

Vineyard Wind and other developers have proposed laying out turbines in 1-by-1-mile grids (Climatewire, Nov. 19, 2019). A Coast Guard study concluded the layout was safe.

“We’re all holding our breath,” said Brandon Burke, director of policy at the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a trade group. “Issuing a record of decision that would require Vineyard Wind to dramatically reconfigure their facility at this late stage would really be a monumental lost opportunity for economic development at a time we need it most.”

The political winds are figured to shift sharply in favor of offshore developers on Jan. 20, the day Biden will be sworn in. Developers have already briefed the president-elect’s transition team, industry sources said.

A road map for climate action released this week by veterans of the Obama administration calls for approving pending offshore wind permits within the first 100 days of Biden’s administration. And the concerns of East Coast politicians, who favor wind but have had little influence under Trump, are likely to resonate more loudly under the president-elect.

But Trump is in charge until late January. There are few signs of how his administration will proceed.

BOEM is a division of the Interior Department. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke championed the projects, framing them as part of the president’s energy dominance agenda. But the industry’s standing under the current secretary, David Bernhardt, is less clear.

Bernhardt surprised many observers last summer when he called for a cumulative impact study to be included as part of the environmental analysis of Vineyard Wind. Many industry supporters conceded that such a review was likely needed, though they questioned whether the administration applied the same scrutiny to fossil fuel projects.

Those moves gave heart to fishing interests opposed to wind development for fear the installations will impede their catch. Bernhardt further stoked their hopes in a July meeting in Boston (Greenwire, July 22).

“In the West, we do wind. You know where we don’t put a windmill? In the middle of a highway,” he told a fishermen’s roundtable. “You can drive all the roads in the West, and you’re not going to drive into a windmill.

“We are going to be thoughtful,” he added. “We don’t whack people with an unnecessary burden.”

Fishermen are concerned that Biden could support a growing tide of offshore wind projects, as well as attempts by congressional Democrats to designate parts of the ocean as off-limits to fishing, said Annie Hawkins, who leads the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fishing group.

Still, it’s unclear if fishermen will have fared any better under Trump, she said. The administration has struck some encouraging notes, but so far failed to deliver on fishermen’s requests, Hawkins said.

“We have a lot of concerns that haven’t been addressed,” she said. “We have so many questions and don’t think this is being done in a balanced way.”

Wind industry sources, for their part, said they are hopeful that Interior will ultimately approve Vineyard Wind without requiring major changes to its current configuration.

Yet their worries persist. Requiring transit lanes not only would affect projects next to Vineyard Wind, but could shake investors’ faith in the U.S. permitting process. One developer, Ørsted A/S, recently announced it was pushing back the in-service date for several of its projects along the East Coast (Greenwire, Nov. 2).

“Before the tidal wave of large-scale investment can be unleashed, you need to see that certainty,” said Burke of the offshore wind trade group.

Vineyard Wind sought to downplay BOEM’s postponement in a statement.

“Minor delays like this are not uncommon and we look forward to publication of the [final environmental impact statement] on December 11th,” the company said. “We are confident that we’ll be able to make the investment decision by mid-2021 as planned and deliver the project in the announced time frame.”

But where the administration ultimately stands is unclear. Interior and BOEM officials did not respond to interview requests.

In a brief statement, a BOEM spokesperson said the bureau “received more than 13,000 comments on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Vineyard Wind. BOEM continues to work with cooperating agencies in the review of these comments.”