Feds ok enviro impacts of offshore wind site leasing

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Offshore wind development off the mid-Atlantic coast took a step forward today with the release of a federal assessment of the environmental impacts of leasing ocean sites for wind projects.  US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley held a press conference in Baltimore this morning at which the document was unveiled.  The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's final environmental assessment for mid-Atlantic site leasing (366 page PDF) will allow it to move forward with granting commercial wind leases and allowing site characterization activities on the mid-Atlantic outer continental shelf.  Notably, the document found that leasing sites and allowing developers to study them would not have a significant impact on the human environment. 

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies must analyze and document the environmental effects of proposed federal actions such as issuing leases for offshore wind sites.  A final environmental assessment was needed before BOEM could issue more leases, whether for offshore wind generation sites or for offshore transmission facilities.

At the same time, Governor O'Malley is intent on passing legislation that he believes will make Maryland the hub of the mid-Atlantic offshore wind industry.  From the Atlantic Wind Connection offshore transmission network to generation projects in federal waters off Maryland (and Maryland state waters), any offshore wind development will need site leases, and issuing an environmental assessment is needed before issuing site leases. Thus for Governor O'Malley's plan to come to fruition, he needs to show that he (and developers) will have the cooperation of the federal BOEM.  Today's event may have been designed to demonstrate that federal regulators will be cooperative with mid-Atlantic offshore wind projects. This would help the industry by reducing regulatory uncertainty, and would also help Governor O'Malley promote his offshore wind program.

The draft environmental assessment released last summer was generally favorable, if not groundbreaking.  Notably, it did not explicitly make a finding of no significant impact from leasing. Comments on the draft environmental assessment were due in August 2011; these public comments are available through a federal document website.  Today's final environmental assessment was developed partly in response to these public comments.

A final environmental assessment is a key step in developing the offshore wind resource, but it's still one of many steps needed. The environmental assessment in question does not cover any specific projects, nor would it permit the actual construction or operation of any projects. Rather it serves as a blanket assessment to document BOEM's review of the impacts of issuing site leases generally, and of allowing developers to study sites.

Today's finding of no significant impact, or FONSI, allows BOEM to move forward with leasing without preparing a more intensive (and time-consuming) environmental impact statement.  This leasing program is part of BOEM's Smart from the Start initiative. The final assessment will now allow BOEM to award of a non-competitive lease for the wind energy area off Delaware, as well as a competitive process to select developers for sites off Maryland.

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