As the Trump administration takes steps to expedite fossil fuel projects and reduce environmental regulations, it has veered in the opposite direction on offshore wind, delaying a highly anticipated project in Massachusetts.
Vineyard Wind was set to be the country's largest offshore wind farm, with construction expected to start this year on a project that could power more than 400,000 homes. But this month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said it was expanding its review of the environmental impacts of the project to include a "more robust" analysis of the potential cumulative impact if other offshore wind farms are built.
The expanded review is potentially broad, with ramifications for Vineyard Wind and several other projects. And yet, the office has provided almost no details on the scope. The project developers said that they had not received any documents showing parameters of the review.
Vineyard Wind was to signal the arrival of the U.S. offshore wind industry, the first in a line of large developments. This delay threatens to slow the progress of an energy source that is vital for East Coast states trying to move away from fossil fuels and meet ambitious climate targets.
Vineyard Wind's developers—Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of a Spanish energy company, and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a Danish investment firm—were racing to begin construction before the end of the year so the project would qualify for a tax credit that is set to end at that time.
While the developers say they are still committed to the project, the potential loss of the tax credit could lead them to rethink their plans.
Environmental advocates and other stakeholder groups have long called for regulators to fully consider cumulative effects of related energy projects, including environmental and global warming impacts. The problem, some critics say, is that there appears to be a double standard in this administration.
For example, the Trump administration, shortly after it took office, cancelled a comprehensive environmental review of the federal coal-leasing program—including the program's impact on climate change. New leasing had been paused during the review, and the Trump administration ordered it to resume.
In June, the White House Council on Environmental Quality proposed eliminating separate cumulative impact assessments of greenhouse gas emissions from how the government meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). "I very much doubt the courts, which have a long history of precedents interpreting NEPA, are going to uphold the Trump CEQ's proposed approach, but it certainly represents a concerted effort to avoid cumulative impacts analyses entirely when it comes to projects that increase greenhouse gas emissions," said Michael Saul of the Center for Biological Diversity.
There is also a reluctance to conduct cumulative impact assessments for offshore fossil fuel projects, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney focusing on offshore oil and gas projects with the Center for Biological Diversity. "I can't think of an instance in which BOEM did an additional cumulative impact analysis on its own accord without being forced to do so by litigation," Monsell said of offshore oil and gas projects.
"The Department of Interior has practically tripped over itself in speeding up the approval of fossil fuel projects and now they are slow-walking this renewable project," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "That could fundamentally damage the economics of the project."
Avangrid Renewables said in a statement that it remains committed to the $2.8 billion project but must revise its schedule because "the original timeline is no longer feasible."
"Offshore wind is a new area of development—what the whole picture looks like is changing pretty rapidly as interest increases," said Hana Vizcarra, a staff attorney at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program. "So it wouldn't surprise me that this is just sort of a normal hiccup for an agency trying to get through the full process for its first major project."
'How Far Out into the Future Do You Go?'
BOEM released its draft environmental impact assessment of Vineyard Wind in December 2018, and a public comment period ended in February.
The report said the project would have a "negligible" to "moderate" environmental impact, but predicted moderate to major short-term economic impact on commercial and recreational fishing. It also assessed the cumulative impact of seven other proposed offshore wind farms, finding that together they would not pose significant risk to air and water quality and marine life.
The landmark National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, first passed in 1969, requires agencies to carry out environmental impact statements of any major federal action and project, and to consider impacts not just on a case-by-case basis but the cumulative effects of many projects like it. NEPA has been a crucial tool for environmental activists; they have succeeded in slowing or blocking numerous projects over the years, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, with lawsuits charging that the federal government had failed to assess environmental impacts as the law requires. Allies of the fossil fuel industries have long viewed NEPA as an impediment to energy development.
Gerrard said it is highly unusual to require extensive new analysis after the draft assessment has been published.
"Had BOEM called for extensive cumulative impact analysis during the scoping process, that would be fairly standard," he said. "But demanding a major expansion after publication of the draft EIS is very unusual and smacks of the sort of bureaucratic impediments to development that Trump campaigned against."
BOEM said it decided to order the additional review now because "a greater buildout of offshore wind capacity is more reasonably foreseeable than was analyzed in the initial draft EIS." Other government agencies and stakeholders supported an extended analysis, including an EPA official who urged the agency to expand the scope of its cumulative impact analysis with a focus on impacts to the commercial fishing industry, the marine environment, and also how the project could help states meet clean energy goals.
BOEM spokesperson Stephen Boutwell said the agency is still determining what would be included in the supplemental review.
Expanding the scope too far would "get into the world of speculation," Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, said. "How far out into the future do you go in trying to anticipate what impacts might happen and what actions might be approved?"
Fishing Industry Complaints and Change at DOI
The idea that regulators should consider the cumulative effects on fishing of all wind farms that may be built, and not just the one whose application is pending, is in line with what fishing industry groups have been seeking.
One of those groups, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, praised the decision. The group had asked that the government's review include all wind farms that likely may be built. Focusing solely on Vineyard Wind, the group has raised concerns that wind turbines in the project be at least one mile apart, which they say is about the minimum distance fishermen need to safely navigate. The current project proposal has turbines placed 0.75 to 1 mile apart.
As recently as June, Vineyard Wind's developers said they had worked out many of their differences with the fishing industry and were on track.
Then the process slowed down, first in July when BOEM notified developers that there would be a delay, and then the announcement last week that the office was expanding its review.
One of the key changes this winter and spring was a shift in leadership of the Department of the Interior, which oversees BOEM. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who had made public statements supporting offshore wind energy, resigned amid ethics probes, and David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, took over.
Did the change at the top matter for this project?
Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware, said Zinke was a promoter of wind energy, but it is not yet clear whether Bernhardt is playing an active role.
Regardless, he said, "There certainly appears to be some unfairness" in the way the Trump administration applies environmental rules to the offshore wind industry compared to the fossil fuel industry.
Saul, a senior attorney for public lands at the Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization has commented on at least 50 oil and gas lease sales on federal lands under the Trump administration and none have included meaningful environmental cumulative impact assessments.
"We constantly fight tooth and nail in administrative processes and in the courts to attempt to get Interior to look at the cumulative impact of fossil fuel projects, and they are constantly trying to avoid doing so, looking only at individual projects in isolation," he said.
Setting Expectations for the Wind Industry
The country is on track to go from just one operational wind farm—a 30-megawatt project with five turbines off Rhode Island—to a host of projects along the East Coast. Several states have set targets for offshore wind energy development, led by New York, which is aiming for 9,000 megawatts by 2035, and their ability to meet their clean energy goals depends on these projects.
Some of the recently announced projects would be larger than Vineyard Wind, including a 1.1 gigawatt wind farm that has won a state contract in New Jersey, but Vineyard Wind has a head start.
As the first large project to go through the federal approval process, Vineyard Wind is helping to set expectations about how long and how expensive that process will be for other projects.
If this ends with the project being canceled, "that wouldn't be a very good signal to the marketplace," Firestone said.
But he is not surprised to see delays. "I would expect until we build a few of these that there would be some bumps along the road," he said.
Tom Harries, a wind analyst for BloombergNEF, said a rigorous review by the government means the result will likely be more enduring and able to survive legal challenges that may arise.
"Compare it to the UK, where a few years ago a number of projects which had initially been granted permits to build were taken to court by environmentalists claiming the permitting body had not accounted for the cumulative impact of the projects," he said. "This delayed the projects and added years and lots of uncertainty to project schedules."
As clean energy advocates seek to make the rapid transition to renewable energy that scientists say is necessary to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, the country's existing environmental laws may continue to slow down that transition, legal experts say.
"This example highlights that our current legal process for environmental reviews and protections may at times hinder our ability to foster a rapid energy transition even when there is a desire to do so," Vizcarra said.
Published Aug. 19, 2019