The on-again, off-again U.S. offshore wind industry seemed to have leaped a significant hurdle last spring. That’s when the Biden administration green-lighted the proposed Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts, as the nation’s first ever large-scale offshore wind farm. However, a new lawsuit with links to the lobbying group ALEC threatens to halt the project, and the uncertainty could have a ripple effect on 16 other offshore projects in the pipeline along the Atlantic coast.
The troubles of the U.S. offshore wind industry present a stark contrast to the rapid pace of wind energy development on land. Despite Republican-led efforts to quash the industry in some states, wind farm development in other states pushed forward at a rapid pace all during former President Obama's tenure and throughout the Trump administration. As of last year, the nation’s onshore wind farms had a total capacity of well over 122,000 megawatts.
By comparison, the offshore wind industry has been at a virtual standstill. Only one offshore wind farm, Rhode Island’s Block Island project, is currently in commercial operation within U.S. waters. Block Island’s five wind turbines have a total of only 30 megawatts. Two other turbines totaling 12 megawatts will eventually become part of the larger Skipjack wind farm off the coast of Virginia, unless halted in court.
The U.S. offshore industry was supposed to pick up speed after 2009, when the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) streamlined its approval process for leasing federal offshore areas. However, during the Obama administration, large swaths of the Pacific Coast and Gulf of Mexico were out of reach, along with the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire, mainly due to technology gaps and other feasibility considerations.
That left the early pace of offshore wind development up to policy makers in just 12 Atlantic Coast states, where conditions are ideal for offshore turbine construction.
Unfortunately for offshore wind power stakeholders, at least five of those states — New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida — were foot-dragging during the Obama administration, reportedly due to the political influence of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization widely regarded as a conservative “bill mill.”
Even so, BOEM continued to lease out areas under its new streamlined process during the Trump administration. After Biden took office, the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project became the first one to achieve final approval under the new process earlier this year, making it a sort of bellwether for 16 other projects in the pipeline.
Within the next few years, Vineyard Wind and the 16 other offshore wind projects will add 1,500 turbines to the U.S. offshore wind portfolio — unless something stops them.
And, once again, it looks like ALEC could have a hand in stopping, or at least delaying, all 16 projects.
As reported by Molly Taft of Gizmodo, last week a group of citizens filed a lawsuit against the Vineyard Wind project, under the name of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines. Among other charges, the suit alleges that BOEM did not sufficiently account for risks the project could pose to the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Taft traced the ALEC connection through one of the lawsuit’s supporters, David Stevenson. He is a director at the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute, which Taft describes as a “libertarian think tank.”
CRI is a member of the State Policy Network, an organization linked to ALEC partly through its roots in the former Madison Group. Greenpeace, among others, has noted that the State Policy Network organizes its efforts around ALEC policy positions.
One of CRI’s focus areas is offshore wind, and Stevenson is listed as policy director under a set of leasing recommendations for BOEM. The proposed guidance would force BOEM to terminate existing offshore leases and refund any monies paid to the lease holders.
Taft also notes that CRI is launching the new American Coalition for Ocean Protection, “specifically to fight offshore wind projects.”
As for whether or not the Vineyard Wind lawsuit will have an impact other Atlantic Coast projects, Stevenson himself clarified the issue during a press conference on the issue last week.
Reporter Charles Megginson of Delaware’s Town Square Live covered the press conference and cited Stevenson as stating that "it’s going to affect all of the offshore wind projects.”
“This is the first industrial-sized offshore wind project to be approved and the environmental impact statement is seriously flawed, the record of decision they used to get the permit is seriously flawed, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management used those flawed documents to approve this project,” Stevenson added.
Some legal analysts are skeptical that the lawsuit will succeed, partly because it rests on allegations that the project would pose a threat to the endangered north Atlantic right whale population.
Megginson cites Dr. Jeremy Firestone of the University of Delaware’s Center for Wind Research, who noted that the offshore wind industry has developed mitigation strategies that reduce if not eliminate risks to whales and other marine life.
“The biggest threat to right whales is and remains commercial ship strikes,” Firestone notes. That brings up the question of why the Nantucket lawsuit aims at an offshore wind project and not at the commercial fishing industry. NOAA also cites fishing gear entanglements as a leading threat to right whales in the Atlantic.
Another expert, cited by Gizmodo, noted that climate change is another significant threat to the north Atlantic right whale population. Climate change has been linked to changes in migration patterns as the whales seek food, leading them into new areas where risk mitigation strategies have not been developed, and increasing the chances of deadly encounters with human activity.
In a twist of irony, the same coastal communities that are most at risk from climate change have also played a role in slowing the development of the U.S. offshore wind industry, due to objections over the sight of wind turbines on the horizon.
Efforts to preserve a pristine view of the ocean can give rise to some unusual alliances. For example, a member of the Kennedy family and a member of the Koch family were both reportedly instrumental in bringing legal action that slowed, and eventually halted, the propose Cape Wind project in Massachusetts.
Cape Wind was the very first utility-scale wind farm proposed in the U.S., before BOEM finalized its new permit process. The demise of Cape Wind could be considered an outlier, now that the new process is in place. However, the Vineyard Wind lawsuit could upend all that work.
Like the legal action against Cape Wind, the Vineyard Wind controversy has also created unusual alliances.
Reuters reports that the solar company Allcore has also filed a lawsuit against Vineyard Wind. Allcore owner Thomas Melone, who owns property on Nantucket Sound, cites impacts on his view as well as impact on whales.
One development that could render the view issue moot is the recent emergence of floating wind turbine technology, which enables wind farms to be situated in deeper waters far offshore, where they are invisible.
Floating turbines also rely on tethers to stay in place instead of sunken piles. That could further mitigate some of the impacts associated with conventional fixed-platform construction.
Meanwhile, the Vineyard wind lawsuit provides leading U.S. corporations with yet another reason to cut ties with ALEC.
By 2012, ALEC’s work in lobbying against climate legislation had already driven Coca-Cola and several other top brands to drop ties to the organization.
Since then, dozens of others have quit over ALEC’s position on gun rights, hate speech and other controversial issues.
ALEC has been regarded as a pro-business organization, but the cumulative impact of its actions is to foster fear, uncertainty and chaos. That’s not exactly a formula for bottom line sustainability, either terms of the global environment or in human society, too.
Image credit: Andrey Sharpilo/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.