Offshore Wind Farms
The Biden administration has made a commitment to have ocean wind farm installations that can produce 30 gigawatts of energy by 2030. The desire to fast track this goal has put pressure on the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to issue leases through what many believe to be a rushed and flawed process.
To meet that political promise, BOEM is currently considering the sale of leases in California and is considering more than a million acres for possible lease sales off the coast of Oregon. Additionally, two unsolicited requests to establish offshore wind farms have raised interest in Washington.
In all instances, multinational corporations would spend billions of dollars for leases that will ultimately allow them to install hundreds, if not thousands, of floating wind turbines that will be tethered to the ocean floor. BOEM reports that they do not know the extent of potential environmental damage to the ocean and its life, nor do they knew where that energy will be utilized or how it will impact the cost of electricity for consumers.
Coalition members are not opposed to offshore renewable energy, but we cannot risk an environmental catastrophe while trying to address the climate crisis. Several possibly devastating risks must first be understood and addressed before the men and women who have spent their careers as stewards of healthy oceans will give their blessing to floating wind farms off the West Coast. What are those risks?
The Impact on Fishing Grounds and Fisheries
The Oregon Coast is a prime example of how the siting process for offshore wind has overlooked the negative impacts on commercial fishing. The two call areas cover fishing grounds used for a number of fisheries, but the presence of massive turbines will create a huge footprint rendering fishing untenable. Offshore wind farms will industrialize large sections of traditional fishing grounds, impacting fish habitat, migration patterns, and other behaviors of marine life that will upset the ecosystem. Nobody can predict what the ultimate impact will be on fish stocks. We do know that fishermen will be pushed out of these areas, causing congestion in other areas or causing them to travel further, using more fossil fuels.
The Privatization and Industrialization of Oceans
Establishing a wind farm with hundreds of turbines will effectively close that area to fishing, giving a specific industry sole rights over thousands of acres previously open to all. Commercial fishermen are expected to simply move to another area, keeping in mind that there are existing closed areas like marine reserves or essential fish habitat areas where fishing cannot occur. While good ocean stewardship means we must acknowledge the usefulness of marine reserves and protecting fish habitat, the lease of expansive swaths of the ocean to for-profit wind farms owned by multinational corporations vastly reduces waters available to fishermen and other existing ocean users.
The Effects on the California Current Ecosystem
The waters along the West Coast are considered to be some of the most biologically productive in the world. Cooler water from the edge of British Columbia flows down along the coast to Baja and is known as the California Current. Wind is a factor, blowing outward away from the coast and pushing surface waters, resulting in cooler, nutrient-rich waters coming up from the depths to take the place of surface waters. This is known as upwelling and it creates a plant-rich area that helps support marine biodiversity in this region, including robust fisheries, various populations of marine mammals, as well as an abundance of sea birds. The unique and prolific California Current Ecosystem is one of only four similar places in the entire world.
Wind turbines remove kinetic energy from the atmosphere and, where a concentration of turbines exist, the effect is reduced wind speeds. How will those changes impact upwelling? Why is the federal government risking one of the most productive ecosystems when there are still many unknowns about the impact on the California Current?
The Safety of Commercial and Recreational Anglers
Research indicates wind turbine farms hamper navigational radar and other electronic systems used by all vessels, creating a safety hazard for recreational fishermen, commercial ships, and even the U.S. Coast Guard. But there are other safety threats as well. If a vessel at sea is in distress, will they have to take a different route to safety because of the presence of massive wind farms? BOEM is unable to answer that question.
The Deadly Toll on Marine Ecology
From the loss of protected seabirds to the potential entanglement of marine mammals in anchoring lines, wind turbines create a number of hazards for a number of special species. Federal and state agencies closely monitor commercial fishing impacts when it comes to these species. The endangerment or death of these birds, whales, and other marine life can and have triggered signficant regulatory impacts on fisheries. Will wind turbines be monitored as fishing vessels are? Will they report whenever a protected Albatross is killed or a whale is entangled, and subsequently cease operation? Will these reports be made public or exempted from public disclosure? These regulations were put in place for the protection of marine ecology and should apply to all ocean users. Sadly, it appears they won’t apply to offshore wind farms.
Beyond these concerns, there are other issues that must be considered.
- The current leasing process does not treat wind energy development and commercial fishing (or any other ocean users) equally. Wind farm operators are held to a much lower standard when it comes to impacts on healthy oceans, birds, marine mammals, and more. At the same time, offshore wind farm developers are prioritized over all other ocean users in the relentless quest to install wind farms off every coast of the United States.
- From the production of the massive turbines to the impacts on pushing cargo vessels further out to sea, which will also require burning more fossil fuel, there are plenty of reasons to ask whether offshore wind energy is truly green.
- Land-based turbines have caught fire, leaked oils, and simply ceased working. What happens when these massive structures suffer maintenance failures? Floating offshore turbines are completely untested in the United States and nowhere will they find more challenging conditions than the treacherous deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.
- As food proteins go, production of wild seafood doesn’t suffer from the consequences of drought and it doesn’t require agricultural land or fertilizers. It is known to have a much smaller carbon footprint than beef, pork, and chicken, and is one of the most sustainable food sources consumed around the world. Why would we put a sustainable, environmentally-friendly food source at risk?
At the heart of this matter is a flawed process. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires a full environmental review for major federal projects that may have significant effects on the environment. BOEM, however, is not compelled by law to conduct a full environmental review prior to granting offshore wind farm leases, according to the D.C. Court of Appeals. BOEM is able to exploit a loophole, indicating that the actual lease itself won’t cause environmental impact. Instead, they are able to lease areas for literally billions of dollars and then claim that the developer will complete the necessary programmatic environmental impact statement and, if the impacts were significant, the project could be halted. This is a hypothetical exercise, however, since BOEM has never rejected an offshore wind farm once leases were issued. The agency could pursue the programmatic EIS in advance of leasing, but without a change in legislation making such action a requirement – they refuse.
The installation of floating offshore wind farms in the California Current ecosystem is fraught with unknowns and demands further research, testing, and environmental assessment. Our food supply, our commercial fishing industry, the rural coastal economies supported by commercial fishing, our sensitive marine ecosystems, and our commitment to clean oceans all DEMAND more thorough study and a more transparent and equitable review process.