A massive offshore wind development off Maryland’s Atlantic coast could put marine life in danger and should undergo further study before construction starts, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris says.
The Republican, who represents the Eastern Shore, is sponsoring a measure requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to spend up to two years researching the project’s potential consequences.
“That is the agency charged at looking after things in the ocean so we think NOAA has to weigh in on this,” Harris said. “We think the more information, the better. Once you put these things up, they’re not coming down.”
Frontier of offshore wind development
Deepwater Wind and U.S. Wind received approval in 2017 to construct two wind turbine projects off Ocean City’s coast.
The projects represent a critical test for the future of offshore wind development in the United States. They are set to become the first, large-scale projects of their kind.
The projects have undergone years of federal review and public comment. In 2012, a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management environmental assessment concluded that “no reasonably foreseeable significant impacts” were expected to arise from the development.
Another study on its way?
Harris said he also worries that the construction of dozens of wind turbines could create a vast restricted area for commercial fishermen. He also pointed to U.S. Coast Guard concerns over the towers possibly impeding boat traffic.
“We certainly don’t want to harm an important industry like the American fishing industry,” said Harris, who sponsored legislation last year that would have effectively barred turbine construction within 24 miles from the shoreline. The measure died when the appropriations bill it was attached to failed to pass Congress.
His latest move could face a similar fate. The House’s Appropriations Committee passed it as an amendment in May to the commerce, justice and science appropriations bill for the 2019 fiscal year.
Environmental groups aren’t lining up to support Harris’ call for more research.
“There have been many opportunities for public comment,” said Jessica Ennis, the legislative director for climate and energy for the San Francisco-based group Earthjustice.
A fisherman’s perspective
Ocean City commercial fishermen, however, say they see some benefit in taking a harder look at the effect on fish.
Earl “Sonny” Gwin said he hasn’t be satisfied with the environmental reviews that have been conducted so far. As a member of Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Ocean City-based fisherman has watched several presentations about the projects and come away feeling like his concerns were being brushed aside.
“It’s almost like somebody started rolling this ball down the hill, and they just want to make it go quicker,” Gwin said.
Committed to ‘significant renewable energy’
Deepwater Wind and U.S. Wind are planning to construct a total of 47 turbines in two separate federal leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. The largest offshore wind development currently operating on the East Coast is a five-turbine facility off Block Island, Rhode Island.
Delmarva Now reached out to both companies for a response to Harris’ amendment, and U.S. Wind replied with a statement.
“We will continue to work with the National Wildlife Federation and local environmental groups to ensure that there is no adverse impact to marine life or other natural resources as a result of our project,” general counsel Salvo Vitale wrote, in part. “U.S. Wind is fully committed to delivering the significant renewable energy, economic and job benefits that our project represents in this emerging economy for Maryland, and in the most responsible manner as a trusted corporate citizen to the lower Eastern Shore communities.”
One of the foremost marine researchers said he believes the kind of study that Harris wants would be “wasted money.”
“The truth is I could write the report he wants right now,” said University of Maryland biologist Arthur Popper. “In terms of the science, we don’t know enough, but it will take years to get all the science we need. Based on what we know now, I think we can make some reasonable suggestions on potential effects.”
How will fish respond?
The pile-driving that construction workers have to do almost certainly will spook fish, lobsters and other marine life, Popper said.
But there are only a handful of studies that have ever been conducted examining how fish respond to noise disturbances. And most deal with seismic testing used in oil and gas exploration and only examine a particular species of fish, he added.
Fish appear to resume their normal activities after the noise stops, Popper said.
What about after the turbines go into service? Will fish be bothered by the sound and the shadows? Once again, there isn’t enough evidence to make any definitive statements, he responded.
Decisions about moving forward with offshore wind developments come down to a cost-benefit analysis, Popper said. Policymakers need to weigh the benefit of spending more time researching potential marine life effects against the cost of delaying a potential source of renewable energy that could slow the effects of climate change.
“Do we wait until we get the data?” Popper asked.
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