Watchdog Group: Coast Guard Stonewalled Approvals Of Offshore Wind Development

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Written by Evlondo Cooper
on August 15, 2016 No Comments
Categories : New & Noteworthy

For the last six months, we at the Checks & Balances Project have attempted to get basic questions answered about the U.S. Coast Guard’s offshore wind energy study and a working group that was tasked with determining how offshore wind farms – a priority for President Barack Obama – could be safely integrated with the shipping industry off the Eastern Seaboard.

After five years, the study, released in March, called for dramatically limiting space for offshore wind energy areas on the Outer Continental Shelf and even recommends removal of blocks from currently leased areas, effectively making a robust offshore wind industry unviable.

Many questions remain unanswered about the Coast Guard’s choices, including why did the working group fail to conduct substantive outreach with offshore wind energy developers?

PowerPoint Is Not Engagement
According to five offshore wind energy developers and experts we spoke to, the Coast Guard performed very little, if any, real outreach. Outside of a few presentations and one-off updates, it appears that no real engagement – with maps spread over tables and substantive back-and-forth discussions – ever took place. The working group could have easily sought out the wind developers and experts, who were eager to partner with the Coast Guard in the study.

Our questions do seem to be having an effect, however.

In a recent story in Politico Pro by Andrew Restuccia and Esther Whieldon, Coast Guard official George Detweiler said the Coast Guard is “considering updating the Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study [ACPARS] it released in March” to include a reduction in the minimum setback of 2 nautical miles from shipping lanes and 5 nautical miles from port access areas for offshore wind energy sites.

AWO Was “Very Engaged”
Although offshore wind developers were effectively shut out of the study, our investigation reveals that the Coast Guard had significant contact with the shipping industry, specifically American Waterways Operators (AWO). According to our highly placed source close to the working group, the tugboat, towboat and barge industry advocate group was “very engaged.”

Not only did AWO leverage its more than 20-year partnership with the Coast Guard to influence and guide the study, including providing key data the working group used for its setback guidelines, the organization also offered guidance on how to implement the study’s recommendations.

The following findings are from AWO’s comment letter:

  • Issue the Notice of Study Results and codify the study recommendations into a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circulars (NVIC) as soon as possible.
  • Once the NVIC has been published, issue a Commandant Instruction empowering Districts One, Five and Seven to create safety fairways based on the Marine Planning Guidelines included in ACPARS.
  • Use the ACPARS recommendations to disqualify proposed Wind Energy Areas that the report has demonstrated to pose navigational risks.
  • Incorporate the Atlantic Region Quality Steering Committee into the standing marine planning workgroup to assist the Coast Guard with the implementation of ACPARS.
  • Avoid additional fact gathering measures (emphasis added) that would further delay the implementation of the ACPARS recommendations.

BOEM Pushes Back
AWO’s guidance and recommendations directly contradict what other federal agencies assert as the best course of action. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), set-back distances should be project- and site-specific.

BOEM states in its comment letter, “Applying setbacks too early in the planning and leasing phase of the program may unnecessarily eliminate areas that eventual are determined to be productive and a low risk to mariners.”

The Coast Guard’s prioritizing of AWO’s goals to the detriment of offshore wind energy developers in the study raises more questions. How did the American Waterways Operators achieve such influence in the Coast Guard’s report? What more do we know about the relationship between these two organizations and about AWO itself? These questions and more will be the subjects of our next posts.

This article is adapted from a blog post by Evlondo Cooper, a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

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