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Wind turbines and fishing nets fight for offshore space

NORTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Port officials, state lawmakers and wind industry representatives boarded a high-speed ferry one recent morning for the one-hour trip to Block Island, the site of America’s lone offshore wind farm. The mood was buoyant.

The five turbines off Block Island can generate just 30 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 17,000 homes, but they represent the potential dawn of a wind boom along the East Coast. Wind developers have signed deals with states up and down the Atlantic Seaboard to generate roughly 4,800 MW of power. A member of the public relations team at the American Wind Energy Association, an industry group, talked up the possibilities: $70 billion of investment in wind farms and the supply chains that serve them. Tens of thousands of jobs, not only in the struggling ports of the Northeast, but in the factories along the Gulf of Mexico, where foundations and other components for the giant turbines would be made.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Evan Vaughan, the AWEA spokesman, exclaimed from the bow of the ferry, the Ava Pearl, with giant turbines looming in the background.

Yet if Block Island represents the promise of offshore wind, the industry faces a series of challenges lurking just beneath the surface of the waves. Opponents of offshore wind have raised concerns ranging from the turbines’ impact on military radar to worries they could clog shipping channels. Perhaps most dangerous to developers’ ambitions: the growing and increasingly coordinated opposition from the commercial fishing industry.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently delayed Vineyard Wind, an 84-turbine project planned for the shallow waters 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, out of concern for its impact on fishing. The $2.8 billion project had been scheduled to begin construction this fall, putting it on course to become the first large-scale offshore wind development in the United States.

Now its future looks less certain. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who has made deregulation a hallmark of his tenure, has said he will not allow the project to proceed until a cumulative impact study of all the projects planned along the Eastern Seaboard can be completed (Climatewire, Aug. 12).

The decision has been clouded in political intrigue. President Trump has done little to hide his disdain for renewable energy, and wind in particular. But until recently, the Interior Department had appeared inclined to permit the massive turbines, which are cornerstones of Northeastern states’ climate and economic development strategies (Climatewire, Aug. 7).

“What’s happened with Vineyard is absolutely terrifying,” said one industry source. “It’s hard to imagine why he [Bernhardt] put something in place that is so chilling. You can say we’re doing this cumulative impact study. But to just say everything is on hold is another thing. They’re looking for an excuse to kill it.”

Aboard the Ava Pearl, where Vineyard Wind representatives were notably absent, few were willing to discuss the project’s travails. A pair of staffers for Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey (D), a champion of the project, declined to discuss it. So, too, did rank-and-file employees of Ørsted A/S, the Danish company that is planning six projects along the Eastern Seaboard.

Their boss, Thomas Brostrøm, who heads Ørsted’s operations in the United States, was one of the few willing to talk about Vineyard’s troubles. He called Interior’s decision a “speed bump.”

“It’s never good to see,” Brostrøm said. “When a project runs into challenges, it creates uncertainty for industry. The industry needs to come together to address these issues.”

Industry advocates worry opposition from fishing interests could give the Trump administration an excuse to kill projects. Scallop fishermen have sued to stop an Equinor ASA project 15 miles southeast of Long Island. The Norwegian state-owned oil company’s initial plans call for 60-80 turbines capable of generating 816 MW of electricity. That is enough to power about 500,000 homes. A federal judge ruled the lawsuit was premature, but the project is expected to face additional legal challenges as it moves forward.

That fight could serve as a precursor to an even larger conflict. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of Interior that oversees the permitting of offshore wind farms, is expected to lease a swath of ocean adjacent to Equinor’s lease next year. Scallop fishermen are urging BOEM to reconsider, saying they still feel slighted over the way Equinor gained its lease.

“We didn’t get a chance to voice our concerns before it was leased out. Statoil didn’t know,” said Eric Hansen, a scalloper from New Bedford, Mass., referring to the Norwegian oil company by its previous name. “They saw it as a convenient area for them, and BOEM awarded it to them.”

More wind than fish

Vineyard Wind was supposed to be free of such challenges. In 2010, BOEM launched an initiative dubbed “Smart from the Start,” which aimed to steer wind development away from prime fishing areas, shipping lanes and sensitive marine habitat prior to leasing. The bureau also set up task forces in each state where it was considering offshore wind leases to solicit feedback on the areas it was eyeing for development.

Early feedback from fishermen and mariners in Massachusetts and Rhode Island prompted BOEM to dramatically reduce the wind energy areas it was considering. The bureau removed more than 1 million acres it had initially considered for wind leases, or more than half of what it originally proposed.

Some fishermen were less impressed. They note the initial areas identified for development are now off-limits to fishing to allow for fishing stocks to rebound.

But the effort did succeed in winning over local officials in New Bedford, America’s top commercial fishing port. The city of nearly 100,000 has struggled with high unemployment for years, and officials there viewed offshore wind as a potential injection of investment and jobs (Climatewire, June 19, 2017).

Also important: Few members of New Bedford’s scallop fleet fish in the waters off Massachusetts.

In Vineyard Wind’s draft environmental impact statement, BOEM estimated the average annual scallop catch from 2007 to 2015 in the Massachusetts Wind Energy Area was valued at almost $170,000, less than half of its total catch. In 2015 and 2016, federal fishing regulators reported the value of the entire scallop catch at $440 million and $486 million, respectively.

New Bedford officials have sought to highlight those figures to Interior officials, arguing that great care has already been taken to avoid conflict between fishermen and the offshore wind industry.

“I can appreciate the secretary’s apprehension about the potential for conflict between the two industries up and down the East Coast, but this particular lease area was subjected to several years of review by the fishing industry and other stakeholders, and there is widespread agreement that of all the places in the North Atlantic where wind farms could go, this area is among the least fished,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell. “There are some squid fishermen, mostly from Rhode Island, and some lobstermen who fish in there, but the value of the area’s annual fish landings is modest, especially compared to the lease areas proposed off of New York.”

But if scallopers can live with offshore wind development off Massachusetts, others are vehemently opposed. Rhode Island fishermen trawl for squid in the area. They argue that the large towers would effectively prevent them from employing the long flowing nets used to reel in their catch. BOEM’s analysis estimated annual mackerel, squid and butterfish revenues in the area around $340,000.

Squid fishermen say that figure underestimates the value of the catch by reflecting the price paid at the dock, not the price paid by stores and distributors after the squid is processed. They maintain that federal officials shut them out of the leasing process and are only now listening to their concerns.

Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze Ltd., a Rhode Island-based company that fishes for squid off Massachusetts, likened BOEM’s leasing process to the Wild West.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s your flag, run out into Oklahoma and stick it in the ground and now you have a homestead.’ That’s what it is except in the ocean,” she said. “So that has been the problem because this is where we work. This is where we do business.”

A BOEM spokesman defended the bureau’s work, noting it works frequently with NOAA Fisheries, which overseas federal fishing permits, and spends around $30 million annually on studying the environmental impacts of leasing large tracts of the ocean to wind development. The criticism BOEM has received for its draft review of Vineyard Wind is part of the process, the spokesman said, noting that the agency will refine its plan as part of the final review.

‘It’s hot water’

The dynamic illustrates one of the great challenges facing offshore wind developers and fishermen alike. The fishing industry isn’t a monolithic entity. Instead, it is made up of different vessels, using different fishing methods to pursue different fish.

That autonomy has traditionally made it harder for fishermen to influence federal planning for offshore wind, industry allies say.

“If you put 25 fishermen in a room, no one’s going to speak for all of them. They’re an independent bunch of people,” said Paul Gallagher, the former chief operating officer of a fishermen-led company that tried to build a five-turbine pilot in New Jersey.

Scallopers have for years pressed authorities to evaluate East Coast wind farms in their totality.

The Fisheries Survival Fund, which represents most of the coast’s scallopers and led the lawsuit against Equinor, argued as far back as 2012 that project-by-project studies would underestimate the overall regional blow to fishing.

FSF also lobbies the Interior and Commerce departments, spending about $50,000 and $30,000, respectively, in the first and second quarters of this year. Vineyard Wind spent $100,000 on lobbying in the first half of 2019 and recently hired the BGR Group, a high-powered lobbying outfit led by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) (Greenwire Aug 16).

FSF welcomed the Trump administration’s decision on Vineyard Wind last month, saying they “closely follow our advice.”

A splinter group, known as the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), has emerged as the commercial fishing industry’s first alliance on offshore wind issues, embracing a less hard-boiled, more collaborative approach with developers and federal and state agencies.

RODA’s rise in the past year coincides with a broader maturation of the offshore wind industry, which took root in an assortment of state renewable targets but has increasingly involved interstate contracts and proposals for power generation and transmission.

“Fishermen have seen some of these deals made with developers – sometimes a specific type of fishing, always a specific state – and they don’t solve the problem. They address the symptom, not the problem,” said Gallagher, the former developer.

Annie Hawkins, executive director of RODA, co-founded the 501(c)(6) nonprofit last year after leaving the law firm Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, where she worked as an attorney on behalf of FSF. The two groups share a public relations firm but say they don’t strategize together.

“There was clearly a lot of interest from the offshore wind sector to hear fisheries’ point of view,” said Hawkins of the decision to found a liaison group. “But they didn’t really know where to start and weren’t getting consistent information.”

Fishermen aren’t the only ones to question the wisdom of sinking turbines in the water. NOAA Fisheries, a division of the Commerce Department that regulates federal fishing, questioned BOEM’s analysis of Vineyard Wind. The bureau’s initial study failed to adequately study the economic impact of wind on fishing and offered few details of mitigation measures for fishermen, NOAA wrote in an April letter to BOEM (E&E News PM, July 29).

That argument has drawn scoffs from Vineyard’s allies.

“This is the agency that for 40 years has promulgated regulations that have led to the collapse of the ground fishery off Georges Bank and in the Northeast in general,” said Jack Clarke, director of government relations at Mass Audubon, an environmental group. “For those of us who work in the climate change arena, the biggest threat to fisheries is not wind farms, it’s not overregulation, and it’s not presidential monuments, it’s hot water. Offshore wind is mitigation against climate changes and its impacts.”

Storms pass. Will wind?

Offshore wind supporters note the industry has co-existed alongside fisherman in Europe for years. Equinor, Ørsted and Vineyard Wind all claim to have conducted extensive outreach with fishermen in an attempt to mitigate the impact of their projects.

“You know any project not everybody’s going to be happy. But the question I think really is how do we get to the best compromise. There has to be a give and take from both sides,” said John O’Keefe, head of marine affairs in the United States for Ørsted. “So we recognize that there’s traditional uses of the area, and we’re trying our best to impact them the least amount possible. Now that’s never perfect, but we are trying our best.”

Vineyard Wind has adopted a low public profile since Bernhardt announced the delay, leaving it largely to supporters and industry allies to advocate for the project. The developer has asked its allies to refrain from attacking the Trump administration, in an effort to avoid antagonizing the president or Bernhardt, according to several people familiar with Vineyard Wind’s thinking.

But the company has pushed back against criticism that its efforts to work with fishermen have been inadequate. Last year, Vineyard Wind announced it was reducing the number of turbines from 108 to 84 in order to shrink the project’s footprint.

After consulting with scallopers, the company laid out its turbines in a north-south pattern to better enable boats to pass through the area on the way to other fishing grounds.

Many fishermen say they are still skeptical of passing close by the giant towers. And they argue Europe’s experience is not analogous to the United States, where many fishing vessels are larger and more apt to trawl.

Jim Kelly fished out of New Bedford for 35 years before spending the last 15 as an advocate for the industry. In recent years, Kelly has worked as an independent contractor for Vineyard Wind, acting as a liaison with fishermen. He praised the developer’s work, saying it was always willing to listen to concerns, even if it ultimately disagreed with them.

Kelly was initially skeptical of wind. But he decided to work for the developer after coming to the conclusion that offshore wind was coming one way or the other. The opposition to towers visible from shore meant the turbines were destined for deeper waters, and there was just too much money to be made to stop them, he reasoned. The best hope for fishermen is to preserve a future for their industry, he said.

“Will fisherman suffer? Absolutely, there’s no doubt,” Kelly said. “But will the fishing industry go away? That’s what I’m trying to prevent.”

He conceded that many of his peers did not share that assessment. Much as they would wait out a storm at sea, many fishermen have adopted the approach of waiting for offshore wind to disappear. The problem with that view, Kelly said, is that some storms don’t pass. Eventually, offshore wind and fishing will have to learn to live together.