Local environmental advocates say plans to auction leases for 344,000 acres off the Jersey Shore for development of commercial wind energy systems should consider impacts on marine life and maritime resources.
The proposed lease areas announced July 21 by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) are divided into a South Lease Area of 160,480 acres and a North Lease Area of 183,353 acres, together known as the New Jersey Wind Energy Area.
Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, said she supports renewable wind energy, but has concerns about future development.
“Clean Ocean Action is not opposed to the idea of renewable energy offshore; however, we want to be sure that it’s done correctly,” Zipf said.
She said there needs to be “criteria to protect marine life.”
According to Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, more needs to be done to understand the offshore environment and to engage all of the stakeholders beyond the wind industry.
“We were not involved in those conversations [about the lease areas] during the call period,” Dillingham said. “Stakeholders of all types, not simply industry or developers, [should be] included in these conversations about the decisions that are going to be made.
“These areas are seen, unfortunately, as open blank slates within the ocean. But the reality is, there are resources that are there that are important environmentally and also to stakeholders who may not be members of the energy development industry.”
The NJ Wind Energy Area begins about 7 nautical miles off the coast from Atlantic City and extends north, ending just off of the coast from Long Beach Island.
Tracey Moriarty, BOEM public affairs specialist for renewable energy, said each lease area would be auctioned separately through a secure online process administered by BOEM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Both lease areas, if fully developed, would be able to support up to 3,400 megawatts of wind energy generation – enough to power roughly 1.2 million homes, according to an analysis prepared by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
However, it is unlikely that the companies that win the leases will develop each area to the full extent, Moriarty said.
“Whoever wins one or both of the lease areas will probably only develop a portion of the lease area that they win,” she said. “If we don’t develop that much, we won’t get [3,400 megawatts of] power.”
Moriarty said a preliminary “call” was issued in 2011 to gauge public sentiment and commercial interest in the project, which led to a 10,407-acre reduction of the zone from 354,407 acres.
“What is being announced [in the proposed sale notice] is smaller than the call area,” Moriarty said. “The reason why we reduced the area … is because of navigation concerns raised by the Coast Guard.”
According to Zipf, the lease areas were determined primarily with the interests of the wind energy industry in mind, not based on environmental considerations.
“The way the region was identified was through a call for interest within the industry,” Zipf said. “Not necessarily over the most appropriate place for marine life, but where is the interest from the wind industry – that’s how the box was drawn.”
Gathering data and information to understand the potential impact of development on sea life is crucial to successfully beginning an offshore wind farm, she said.
“It’s really important to get a very thoughtful and careful baseline assessment of the region from which impacts going forward could be evaluated,” Zipf said.
There is also a great deal of concern surrounding continued efforts by the federal government to locate oil and natural gas using seismic testing.
“If the ocean is going to be taking on a role in renewable energy, then lay off the offshore oil and gas development,” Zipf said. “Back off.”
COA also opposes BOEM’s plan to conduct seismic testing to survey for oil and gas deposits that will include producing a 230- decibel sound blast on the ocean floor off the coast of Barnegat that will impact animal life throughout the shoreline.
The study is being conducted by Rutgers, Columbia University and the University of Texas, and is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection sued to block the testing, set to begin this summer, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the testing could proceed on July 14.
Dillingham said renewable energy is an important response to climate change, but development needs to be done with an eye on the surrounding ecosystem, as well.
“I think there are some environmental issues that need to be respected and paid attention to as these kinds of projects move forward,” Dillingham said.
Among those issues are the well-being of local marine life and the viability of fisheries for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
“These projects have potential impacts on those resources,” Dillingham said. “The site needs to take into consideration avoiding those resources.”
According to Moriarty, the winners of the leases are required to file site assessment plans outlining their intentions to survey the lease area, followed by a construction and operations plan detailing the future development projects.
“Whoever wins the lease areas will have 12 months to submit a site assessment plan for BOEM’s review,” Moriarty said. “Once that review is approved, then they can submit a construction and operations plan – and they have 4 1/2 to do that.”
Once a detailed plan of the lessee’s project is submitted to BOEM, the agency will conduct a detailed environmental review of the potential impacts of that project, Moriarty said.
“When we get that [construction and operations plan], we will do an environmental review, which can take a couple of years,” she said.
If the results of the environmental review present a potential negative impact, Moriarty said the lease area might be further reduced in size or redrawn to avoid undesirable affects on the environment.
The 60-day public comment period on the lease proposal is open until Sept. 19.
Public comments for the New Jersey Proposed Sale Notice may be submitted at www.regulations.gov under Docket No. BOEM-2014-0029.
A public seminar will be held Aug. 6 by BOEM to explain the auction format, rules and demonstrate the process; time and location to be announced.
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