Ominous winds blow, but offshore efforts hold steady

Stormy seas: A delay in the federal permitting process could mean rough waters ahead for offshore-wind developers.

President Trump is tapping the breaks on offshore-wind development, but the burgeoning billion-dollar industry is still poised to reset environmental and economic barometers.

That’s the word from world-class energy guru Robert Catell, chairman of the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, who’s staying calm in response to the announcement that the Trump Administration is delaying permits for the first major U.S. offshore wind farm, until such time that the administration has reviewed and approved a final environmental impact statement.

The development – Vineyard Wind’s $2.8 billion, 800-megawatt farm – includes multiple turbines situated roughly 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, with a New England power grid connection point in Barnstable, Mass.

It’s scheduled to be operational by early 2022 and projected to reduce the commonwealth’s carbon emissions by more than 1.6 million tons annually, the equivalent of removing 325,000 cars from Massachusetts roads. It’s also expected to generate some $3.7 billion in energy-related cost savings throughout New England over the course of its life, while creating thousands of jobs and running up $17 million per year in state and local taxes.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2018 as part of its lengthy review of Vineyard Wind’s offshore-farm proposal. That DEIS has already undergone a public-review period.

Robert Catell: Can’t say which way the wind is blowing.

Now, the Trump Administration is demanding a new EIS – this exploring the cumulative impact of the large number of offshore-wind developments proposed along the East Coast, including multiple projects eyed for Long Island waters.

The question of whether the unabashedly pro-fossil fuel administration is performing due environmental diligence or simply one-upping the sustainability set is a fair one; earlier this year, the BOEM announced it would begin issuing permits for seismic airgun blasting, a sound cannon-centered search for fossil-fuel deposits below the ocean floor proven harmful to whales, dolphins and other sea mammals, as well as fish eggs and larvae.

Catell, the former head of KeySpan and National Grid’s U.S. operations and current chairman of Stony Brook University’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, isn’t going there.

It’s “really too early to tell” if the administration’s call for a newer, wider EIS is an intentional monkey in the wrench or something more ecologically noble – and “too early to comment about what kind of an impact it’s going to have” on the long-term fates of individual offshore projects, according to Catell.

“Some of these wind projects are five years off at the earliest, so at this point, it’s hard to say whether [the delay] will have a significant impact,” he told Innovate LI. “But we have to see how it plays out.”

Some in the game are already playing past this. Last week, Vineyard Wind submitted a proposal to the commonwealth’s Electric Power Division for a second wind farm off the Massachusetts coast, including plans for potential 400- and 800-megawatt designs.

And bolstered by the nation’s first Offshore Wind Master Plan, Denmark-based energy company Ørsted A/S – which acquired American offshore developer Deepwater Wind in 2018 – continues to float multiple projects for New York State waters, including the South Fork Wind Farm and the Deepwater One zone between Montauk and Martha’s Vineyard.

Catell is convinced many of the projects will carry water.

“Anything that slows down the permitting process doesn’t help,” he noted. “But most of these projects have enough lead time.”

And with a larger move to renewables still afoot, expect offshore wind to continue climbing toward the $70 billion industry some analysts predict, according to Catell, who advocated a slow-and-steady approach to Washington’s machinations.

“Any project has its opponents and proponents,” he said. “And you have to be sensitive to the issues raised by fishermen and landowners – you can’t just run roughshod over them.

“We just have to go through the review process in an orderly fashion to make sure things are done in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Catell added. “It may take a little but longer, but with the commitments that have already been made here in the Northeast, it’s worth it in the long run.”