Offshore wind projects deserve careful review, but not bureacratic death

Source: By The Newsday Editorial Board • Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2019

Wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project standWind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Block Island, R.I. on Aug. 15, 2016. Photo Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

When federal officials put the nation’s first big offshore wind farm on hold to expand an environmental review of the project, the dirty irony  seemed inescapable. The Trump administration — which has slavishly shed regulations, short-circuited environmental reviews and promoted fossil fuels — was using environmental protection to delay a renewable-energy project.

But as clean a fit as that connect-the-dot conclusion might seem, the action was not unreasonable. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it wanted its federally mandated review of the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to include an analysis of the cumulative impact of all offshore wind projects being developed.

As public policy, analyzing cumulative impacts is important. The offshore wind industry is expanding rapidly, especially in the Northeast. New York alone has handed out contracts for more than 1,800 megawatts — including two off Long Island’s coast, each bigger than 800 megawatts and able to power a combined total of 1 million homes, according to state officials. Another 7,000-plus megawatts are due by 2035. That’s an essential component of the state’s strategy to meet its goal to largely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Those ambitious goals, driven by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others, became law in July.

The federal agency’s other concern was specific to the Vineyard Wind project. While it was proposed by a fairly responsible developer who agreed to phase construction so that its noise would not disrupt the migratory season of the highly endangered right  whale, the proposal fell short in meeting concerns of the commercial fishing community. A  meaningful cumulative impact analysis would consider how  large-scale wind power affects climate change, air and water pollution, migratory birds, marine mammals, and commercial and recreational fishers.

While the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management  might be justified in hitting the pause button, the agency must not use this delay to kill the project. Offshore wind is essential to the fight against climate change, in New York and elsewhere. Its benefits easily outweigh any negatives. BOEM and its parent, the Department of the Interior, as well as the Trump administration in general, have been bullish on offshore wind as giant infrastructure projects with good jobs — despite President Donald Trump’s occasional disparagement of “windmills” and his recent  bizarre remark that they “frankly aren’t working too well.”

Until recently, the history of the offshore wind industry was a graveyard of projects abandoned in the face of local opposition, regulatory hurdles and tough economics. Now it’s advancing vigorously, with big projects approved or in various pipeline stages in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware. As offshore wind gears up for the bright future that is coming, a fair and stable environmental review process is essential. That’s what the federal government  needs to establish, and without further delay, so the nation can begin to harvest the clean power it needs.