Coast Guard may rethink offshore wind restrictions

Editor’s note: This article is written by Esther Whieldon and Andrew Restuccia, and published on POLITICO. This is a follow-up to a piece recently published on the Coast Guard’s seeming lack of engagement during the course of an offshore wind energy study. That article may have had an effect because the Coast Guard is now considering updating the study.

The U.S. Coast Guard may change course and endorse opening wider swaths of the Atlantic for offshore wind farms by shrinking the buffer zones around the major shipping channels and ports along the coast.

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The Coast Guard is now considering updating the Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study that recommended keeping offshore wind projects at least two nautical miles away from shipping lanes and five nautical miles from port access areas.

The Coast Guard is considering updating the Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study it released in March that recommended keeping offshore wind projects at least two nautical miles away from shipping lanes and five nautical miles from port access areas, a Coast Guard official told POLITICO.

If put into practice, those buffer zones could put large portions of the Atlantic Coast off limits for renewable energy development, wind developers warned.

That wide buffer zone would almost certainly cut into the 22 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind the Department of Energy estimated in 2015 could be deployed in the U.S. by 2030 and the 86 GW that could be built by 2050. Unless that buffer zone changes, wind turbines must be sandwiched between the coastline-hugging routes of barges, tugboats and recreational vessels and the deeper water pathways navigated by tankers, container ships and military vessels.

Meanwhile, Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is moving full speed ahead, awarding 13 leases that could yield nearly 6,000 MW of wind-power capacity along the coasts of New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia. In June, BOEM said it planned to award more leases offshore New York and asked for developers to submit their names for a Hawaiian lease sale.

Lease sales are expected to be announced this summer for North Carolina, and BOEM is exploring additional locations along the South Carolina, California and Oregon coasts.

The Coast Guard’s March guidelines complicate the Obama administration’s plan to develop green power from offshore wind to address climate change. The New York Port Authority claims the suggested buffer zones could eliminate half of the 81,000 acres BOEM proposes to lease off the coast of New York. Deepwater Wind LLC, which is building the nation’s first offshore wind project near Rhode Island, warned the setback recommendations could eliminate 20% of the North Lease area offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper told POLITICO the agency didn’t agree with the Coast Guard’s approach, but characterized the dispute as “a healthy conversation between agencies that are tasked with ensuring different priorities.”

“BOEM thinks it’s appropriate to do it on a case-by-case basis and evaluate the navigational risks for each specific project,” she said. “Taking wide areas off the table years in advance is very premature.”

The Coast Guard study took five years to finish partly because the task force behind the effort struggled to reconcile its maritime traffic data with BOEM’s wind development plans. Instead, the study relied heavily on industry input and international maritime standards, including guidelines released in 2008 by the United Kingdom’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

To be sure, the Coast Guard’s recommendations aren’t binding and BOEM has the final say on offshore leasing. But BOEM officials and the wind industry alike worry the Coast Guard’s blanket setback rules could set a precedent that would stunt offshore wind development, particularly if a future administration uses the March report as the basis for binding regulations.

“Any administration coming in can take existing studies and take further regulatory action based on them,” Hopper said.

In comments submitted on the final study, project developers and wind industry groups urged the Coast Guard to update the findings to reflect the new recommendations the U.K. maritimes agency published earlier this year. The U.K., Europe’s top offshore wind power country, now says projects can mitigate their impact on maritime traffic when they are designed, for example, by spacing turbines farther apart. That means it could be safe instituting significantly smaller buffer zones ranging from 0.5 nautical miles to 3.5 nautical miles.

The Coast Guard only learned of the U.K.’s new guidelines after it released the Atlantic Coast study, George Detweiler, a top official in the Coast Guard’s Office of Navigation Systems, said in an interview. Detweiler has since reached out to U.K. officials “to find out what their rationale was. … We will take a look at [it] and, if deemed appropriate, we may – I’m not promising that we will – go back and adjust our marine planning guidelines appropriately,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome, the Coast Guard will be flexible when applying the buffer zone guidelines on a case-by-case basis, which is why “I don’t believe that the study stands in the way of any wind projects,” Detweiler said.

BOEM’s Hopper welcomed the the news that the Coast Guard would research the new U.K. guidelines.
“That is great news. And I think that’s a perfect example of how things continue to evolve. And that’s partly why we think making decisions at the time we’re presented with a specific project is appropriate because it will be more relevant at that time,” she said,

She added that BOEM has reached out to officials in the U.K., Denmark and Germany to learn from their best practices, and the agency has shared that information with the Coast Guard.

The wind industry would welcome a lower minimum setback, said Gene Grace, American Wind Energy Association senior counsel. Smaller buffer zones “would actually make a huge difference,” including for projects that haven’t finished their environmental assessment or are waiting for the green light on their construction and operation plan, he said in an interview. “I think this would be a substantial change in the right direction.”

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