Interior advances Mass. leasing proposal

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012

The Obama administration today advanced a proposal to lease more than 1,100 square miles of federal waters off the coast of Massachusetts for offshore wind development.

The Interior Department’s draft environmental assessment proposes developing a wind energy area about 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, excluding high-value fishing grounds and important sea duck habitat areas.

“Responsible development of abundant wind energy in places like offshore Massachusetts is a key part of the Obama Administration’s all of the above energy strategy,” said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, in a statement. “At the same time, we must ensure that the potential effects of wind energy development on other resources, such as marine mammals and fishing, are closely analyzed and that appropriate protections are put in place.”

Release of the environmental assessment comes a week after BOEM announced an agreement to issue a noncompetitive lease to NRG Bluewater Wind Delaware LLC for development off the Delaware coast, which is the second offshore lease in U.S. waters and the first under the Obama administration’s new leasing regime (E&ENews PM, Oct. 23). A spokeswoman for BOEM said the lease would be finalized and available to the public by mid-November.

Leases issued under the Massachusetts proposal would give winning bidders the exclusive right to install meteorological towers and test buoys to assist in project planning or to submit an offshore wind construction plan. The environmental assessment anticipates construction of up to five meteorological towers and 10 buoys, resulting in up to 6,500 vessel round trips over a five-year period.

In April, BOEM announced it had received 10 nominations of interest from industry, including leasing proposals from Deepwater Wind New England LLC, Fishermen’s Energy LLC, enXco Development Corp. and Spanish firm Iberdrola Renewables Inc.

The agency will next determine whether to issue a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) authorizing leasing or to launch a more comprehensive environmental impact statement.

BOEM earlier this year issued a FONSI for wind energy areas off the coasts of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, trimming significant time off the development timeline, according to industry officials. An environmental assessment for a separate leasing area off Massachusetts and Rhode Island was issued in midsummer.

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition in Washington, D.C., said the Massachusetts environmental assessment is a “key step” to reaching the nation’s energy and security independence goals.

“We are delighted that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management continues to support development of the offshore wind industry that will result in establishment of thousands of high-skilled jobs and manufacturing opportunities for our workers here in the U.S.,” he said in an email.

The 396-page assessment includes an alternative that would exclude roughly 25 percent of the wind energy area to protect the critically endangered right whale, which uses the area during its regular migration. Up to one-fourth of the species’ population — which numbers about 375 — has been observed in the call area, BOEM said.

While collisions with ships are the leading cause of right whale deaths, many fear the sound of boats, seismic surveys and pile driving during the planning and construction of wind farms could further stress the species.

Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon in Boston, said the wind energy area will protect the movement of sea ducks in and out of Nantucket Sound. While questions remain over whale migration patterns, he said most have been satisfied by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’re very satisfied,” he said in an interview. “I think BOEM is in a good position to take their next steps in terms of leasing for that area.”

BOEM will conduct four listening sessions in Massachusetts in mid-November and is accepting written comments until Dec. 3.

Offshore wind development has occurred almost exclusively in Europe — where more than 50 projects and nearly 4,000 megawatts have been installed in the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. No projects have sprouted in the United States, where developers have faced shifting federal tax policy, high capital costs, a lack of transmission and maritime infrastructure, and some lawsuits.

But the Atlantic could support up to 54,000 megawatts of projects by 2030, DOE says.