The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to pave the way for the West Coast’s first offshore wind farm that if ultimately approved and built would occupy roughly 206 square miles of ocean about 20 miles west of the town of Eureka, Calif.
“This is truly historic,” said commission chair Donne Brownsey just before the unanimous vote was taken.
Not everyone agrees.
Specifically, commercial fishermen said the waters off of Eureka are some of the most valuable on the entire West Coast, and cordoning more than 200 square miles will have a dramatic impact on their business.
“We are not opposed to offshore wind, but we are opposed to the industrialized loss of California’s fish grounds,” said Ken Bates, vice president of the Humboldt Fisherman’s Marketing Association.
Bates said that the Coastal Commission and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which would manage the implementation of the project, need to be sure that gear is not abandoned if the project ceases and that the commercial fishing trade representatives have their seat at the negotiating table.
The commission’s vote Thursday does not authorize the project but allows companies interested in developing offshore wind to enter into a lease, after which commissioners would be able to vote on a more substantive version of the project with more specifics regarding the number and nature of turbines to be installed.
Currently, officials are not sure how many wind turbines would be placed off the coast, nor are they sure about the impacts on marine ecology and wildlife.
“This is completely unprecedented,” said commissioner Mark Gold.
Despite the nebulous nature of the project, many of the environmental organizations that typically advocate at the Coastal Commission expressed cautious support for the project.
“As we go big on projects to combat climate change, we also need to go big on protecting our ecosystems,” said Kate Kelley with Defenders of Wildlife.
One of the ways project operators hope to mitigate impact to ecosystems is by making the entire project unmoored, called floating offshore wind.
Without each individual turbine being cemented to the ocean floor, the project figures to lead to less disturbance during the construction and ocean phase, officials explained.
But the exact type of technology remains somewhat mysterious as the commission and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have proceeded quickly and aimed to fast-track the project.
“The staff report is like three dissertations completed in three months,” Gold said.
Part of the reason for the expeditious approach is deadlines around California’s shift to a more carbon-neutral energy infrastructure. All the commissioners spoke of their desire to use offshore wind developments to supplement California’s bustling solar industry.
But another factor is politics. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, federal agency, would likely not be pursuing this project had Donald Trump won reelection in 2020. But with President Joe Biden in charge, federal agencies have more of an impetus to pursue renewable energy projects. However, should the government change hands again in 2024, offshore wind projects could be ripe for cancellation.
Gold said some of the commercial fishermen have expressed concerns about the pace of the project’s evolution and the bureaucratic process.
Fisherman Tom Haverford said offshore wind projects in Europe have made the continent more dependent on coal and natural gas and have negatively affected the fishing industry.
Some studies conducted in Europe, where offshore wind is much more commonplace, have shown there is no correlation between offshore wind and a decline in commercial fishing in a given area.
But Gold acknowledged the wind farm could impinge on the ability to fish the ocean bottom in the area and other fishing methods such as trawling. The agreement approved by the Coastal Commission, which allows the lease phase of the project, will be subject to intense monitoring, partly because officials don’t know the extent of impacts to wildlife, ecology, fish and shipping.
“We are not going to understand the effect on migratory birds until the project is in the water,” said Kate Hucklebridge, the North Coast deputy director for the commission.
Potential lessees will have to come back to the commission to get a specific project approved before construction begins. The company pursuing the lease is expected to be identified by the fall.
While the Humboldt offshore project is the first one on the West Coast to begin the approval process, another similar offshore wind project west of Morro Bay along the Central Coast is slated to come before the commission for consideration in June.
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