The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) heard oral arguments June 24 on a request from Ocean Wind I LLC to have the NJBPU overrule Ocean City’s governing body concerning the company’s planned route for transmission cables that would cross the city’s beachfront and streets in the area of 34th Street on their way to a connection point at Beesley’s Point.
The company argues that this is a reasonable route for the necessary electric grid interconnection for the offshore wind farm. Ocean City argues that other routes are available and that the state and the NJBPU should not so cavalierly trample on the rights of the city’s elected representatives to determine what can and cannot travel on the island’s streets.
Ocean Wind I is the state’s showcase project, the first wind farm construction off our coast. Alternative energy from wind farms along most of the New Jersey coast is an essential part of the state’s strategy for reaching energy goals from renewable sources. Specific targets have been set for 2030, 2050 and beyond. Ocean City’s obstruction of the Ocean Wind I LLC plan for onshoring the transmission cables is yet another speed bump on the aggressive push to get alternative energy sources online quickly.
We are not taking a position on the oral arguments presented to the NJBPU by both sides. What is more striking is that four years after Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 28 and over two years after the state’s release of its Energy Master Plan, so little effort has gone into building public support for how the state responds to what it calls the greatest challenge of our time.
It is possible that a consensus on how to move forward to face climate change cannot be achieved, but the state’s actions to date show too great a willingness to assume consensus is unachievable.
There are websites filled with documents on necessary changes to land use regulations and goals for alternative energy production. There are processes in place that mandate public hearings,but all of these follow the letter of the law for what is required. They do not aim at education, persuasion, or consensus building.
Let’s take the example of Ocean Wind I and its long-awaited environmental impact statement from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The document was released this month at 1,400 pages with no accompanying summery. The release of the statement started the clock on a 45-day public comment period for a document most members of the public will find totally inaccessible. Even Joseph Fiordaliso, current president of the NJBPU, deadpanned a joke when he suggested that everyone at the oral arguments had read the document cover to cover.
Does BOEM truly feel that informed public comment is possible with such an environmental impact statement, or is more likely that public comment is a required box to be checked off in an accelerating effort to initiate construction of New Jersey’s first offshore wind farm? The answer seems obvious.
If one accepts the arguments, both federal and state, that serious threats are imminent, and accelerated efforts to combat them are required, one is left to ask the question:Where is the effort to educate, listen attentively and reconcile the public’s issues and concerns? One could argue that party control changed in Washington and that the earlier administration had a different view on the threats and the required actions. Yet, in New Jersey, where there has been a continuity in leadership, we still see small effort at building public support.
A major fault line that runs through New Jersey’s approach to climate change is a lack of socioeconomic focus. It is one thing to push an agenda for what must be done and another to leave the consequences dangling and unconsidered. We will be told that public concerns have been “studied” and addressed in the 1,400-page BEOM statement or perhaps in the Ocean Wind I LLC 859-page construction plan.
There will be three virtual meetings for public comment on the environmental statement. How informed can that comment be, given the inaccessibility of the document itself is incidental to the requirement that the meetings be held before BOEM can render a ruling on construction of the wind farm.
What is also of importance here is the fact that Ocean WindII in a lease area that stretches further south along the Cape May County coast is moving through the authorization process and is likely to benefit from the process used for Ocean Wind I.
Public support is an elusive goal. New Jersey’s revamp of its land use laws to take into account climate change are overreach to some, while others, including the Sierra Club, have gone on record to say they do not go far enough. Interestingly, the comments from both sides tend to come from organizations that have paid employees to wade through ponderous documents to determine where the particular interest they serve is touched.
The real challenge is reaching the average members of the public. To do that requires a carefully thought-out plan that we lose sight of the essential task, especially among those most directly impacted.
We will probably be told in a variety of ways that the climate threats are imminent and the time for building consensus does not exist. Yet, the more extreme the threat, the more drastic the disruption will be to develop the plans to meet the threats.
Without broad public understanding, we increase the odds of failure. Surely, we can do better than we have to date; 1,400-page environment impact statements say, “Trust the experts.” It is a strategy unlikely to be embraced.
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