In an abrupt decision, the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) announced on December 15 that the application process for Vineyard Wind, a wind energy development in federal waters off Massachusetts, was terminated. The final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the project was scheduled to be released on December 11; the decision on the project was due on January 15, shortly before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden.
Earlier in December, however, Vineyard Wind had withdrawn its Construction and Operation Plan, stating that it would conduct a technical review of larger-sized turbines than those it had first proposed. That action would delay the environmental review required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) until after Joe Biden took office.
Because NEPA does not allow for a temporary halt to the process, Department of Interior Secretary Bernhardt determined Vineyard Wind’s withdrawal amounted to a complete revocation of the project application. To gain a permit, the company will have to resubmit a new Construction and Operations Plan and go through the permitting process again.
The withdrawal is a win for the region’s fishing industry, which has objected to the project in addition to other proposed projects in the New England area. Two fishing industry groups, the Fisheries Survival Fund and the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), have requested changes to the project. In addition, two reports by NOAA Fisheries raised further questions on how the wind projects would affect fisheries in the area, and questioned the draft EIS issued by BOEM in June.
“RODA has done an amazing job highlighting the major flaws of these offshore wind projects. They have successfully organized the fishing industry to work together and argue its case based on facts,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of MLA, which is a RODA member. “This week’s news is a game-changer and it gives us all hope that input from the fishing industry will be heard.”
The Vineyard Wind saga is a long one.
The company, part of Spanish utility firm Iberdrola, planned to build the nation’s first large offshore wind energy project in federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. In January 2015, it won a 160,000 square acre lease and announced its intention to construct 84 wind turbines to produce 800 megawatts of electricity. Massachusetts, which has an offshore wind energy goal of 3,200 megawatts by 2035, contracted to buy that energy.
Fishermen were not happy with the proposal from the outset. RODA voiced numerous objections to the project, most recently concerning the location and density of the turbines.
In the meantime, BOEM, which at first appeared eager to move the Vineyard Wind project forward, began to change its approach after the departure of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in December 2018. In December 2019, as the company’s final Environmental Impact Statement was about to be released, the new Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, required Vineyard Wind to produce a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that focused on the cumulative effects of offshore wind power projects proposed along the East Coast on the ocean environment and fishing industries.
That Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement was due to be published on December 11 but now has been deemed no longer necessary since the project review itself has been terminated. Because it “was framed as part of the Vineyard Wind project review rather than a stand-alone document, this means the SEIS has not been finalized and cannot be used as a basis for future wind projects,” explained Annie Hawkins, RODA executive director, in an email.
In another positive development for fishermen, the Department of Interior’s chief lawyer on December 15 declared that the department should follow a stricter standard when considering whether to permit offshore wind farms where they might “interfere” with fishermen and other ocean users. Secretary Bernhardt requested clarification of language in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that requires “prevention of interference with reasonable uses of the exclusive economic zone, the high seas, and the territorial seas” when considering renewable energy. The Department’s Solicitor Daniel Jorjani said a memo issued earlier in the fall was “impermissibly narrow” in its interpretation of interference. He urged the department to take a “cautious” approach, “to prevent interference with reasonable uses in a way that errs on the side of less interference rather than more interference.”
“This is a new principle that is highly favorable to fishermen’s interests,” wrote Hawkins in an email. “The new legal guidance says it can only approve wind projects if they do not unreasonably interfere with fishing operations, that fishermen’s perspectives are what determine whether interference is unreasonable, that such interference is considered on a cumulative instead of project-specific level, and if in question they must err on the side of less interference rather than more.”