Offshore Wind: Fencing Off the Atlantic

Why does “maritime come last” in the siting of offshore wind farms?

By MarEx 2014-03-03 10:34:00

By Dana Goward

Baltimore, Maryland, November 23, 2010: The Honorable Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, was behind schedule. Renewable energy had been one of President Obama’s top priorities when he came into office nearly two years earlier. Solar arrays and wind farms on land were progressing, but the horse that could really win the race – offshore wind energy – hadn’t gotten out of the gate. The problem wasn’t the wind – there was enough off the East Coast to power the entire nation many times over. And it wasn’t the technology – Europeans had been harnessing strong, steady offshore winds for years. Rather, it was a complex regulatory environment that included both state and federal agencies.

“Smart from the Start”

Salazar’s team had managed to streamline the process for land projects, calling their new approach “Smart from the Start.” With some innovative approaches to environmental and leasing reviews, they had reduced an almost decade-long process to less than half that. But making it work offshore was another matter. The scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service (recently reorganized into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation & Enforcement) knew a lot about oil and gas but hardly anything about wind. Fortunately, Secretary Steven Chu and his colleagues over at Energy had helped out. But then came the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That had consumed all of everyone’s bandwidth for the last seven months. 

Despite it all, Salazar was in Baltimore ready to launch the nation full-speed into offshore wind energy with his announcement of “Smart from the Start” for the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. The only problem for most maritime interests was that “Smart from the Start” turned out to be anything but.

The first sign of trouble came less than three months later when BOEMRE publicly proposed Wind Energy Areas for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. All of the areas abutted dense vessel activity, and the ones for Massachusetts and Rhode Island impinged upon the heavily traveled Nantucket-to-Ambrose traffic lane. More surprisingly, the areas proposed for Delaware and Maryland nearly closed off access to Delaware Bay, with the Maryland area sitting squarely across the entrance to the southeastern Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS).  

How did this happen? How could a federal agency propose measures that would greatly increase the risk of collisions, allisions, and environmental damage while also increasing the cost of tens of thousands of commercial vessel movements each year? As is usually the case in government, the reasons are many and complicated. And while there are no villains in this story, America’s essential commerce continues to be threatened by well-intentioned people and a process that considers the impact on maritime transportation last. 

Well-Intentioned, but Uninformed

When sailors stand on shore and look out to sea, they see a vast, often tumultuous highway upon which they ply their trade. When everyone else does the same thing, they see a near-infinite, empty, unused expanse, ripe for development. They don’t understand that there are over 156,000 major vessel movements along the East Coast each year and efficiency demands they use the same limited water space because the shortest route between two ports is the same for everyone. They don’t understand that these voyages are essential to the nation’s economy, indeed to life in the U.S. as we know it (as far as they know, the stuff at Walmart arrives by truck). And they are puzzled as to why mariners think they need so much space – why they become concerned if two major vessels come within even a mile of each other.

In the Department of Interior’s defense, close cooperation with stakeholders is part of their “Smart from the Start” strategy. In fact, in February 2010 Salazar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with 10 Atlantic Coast states from Maine to North Carolina, and more states have been added since. But very few state governments know anything about what happens more than a mile or so off their shores. Their coastal management departments are mostly concerned with zoning, beach erosion, tourism, cultural and environmental issues – not maritime traffic. And while some states were thoughtful enough to include port cities and port authorities in their offshore wind task forces, it is the rare port authority that has any appreciation for what is going on beyond its sea buoy.

The result is that the government-only task forces proposing wind energy areas are dominated by folks who know little, if anything, about marine transportation and are tasked with making as much coastal water as possible available for wind energy. Which is another way of saying “reserve as little of it for shipping as possible.” Yes, there is always a U.S. Coast Guard representative in attendance, who provides charts with Automatic Identification System (AIS) plots and advocates for the needs of commerce, but theirs is only one voice of many. Consequently, proposed wind energy areas have frequently been developed considering everything from submerged Native American campsites to obscure fish habitats, but not the billions of tons of cargo that transit the surface.

Complex Governance

The authority to permit various uses of our nation’s water space is a confusing jumble. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permits hydrokinetic projects. It also permits offshore LNG terminals in state waters, but farther out it’s the Coast Guard and MARAD. The Department of Interior leases use of the bottom, often for things that stick up through the surface. It does this for all U.S. waters except the Great Lakes and state waters (usually three nautical miles), where it is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has the authority to permit obstructions to navigation in all U.S. waters but is generally focused on channels, rivers, harbors, dredging and environmental issues. When it comes to vessel traffic issues, the Corps defers to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard does have the authority to establish routing measures and set aside channels to assure access to ports, but only after careful study, public comment and rulemaking – a process that can take ten years or more. Even then, the Coast Guard is prohibited by law from establishing any routing measure that “would deprive any person of the effective exercise of a right granted by a lease or permit executed or issued under other applicable provisions of law” (Ports and Waterways Safety Act, 1972). So once a lease is issued, everyone must go around, regardless.

When it comes to offshore wind energy, the Department of the Interior is the federal lead and, as the department with lease authority, the ultimate decision-maker as to what goes where.

In spite of much negative feedback, in December 2012 the Department of Interior proposed this wind energy area in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” off Cape Hatteras. It is the site of thousands of vessel transits each year and some of the most treacherous conditions anywhere.

Maritime Comes Last

The department’s “Smart from the Start” initiative, when applied offshore, has an unusual and potentially counterproductive feature: Rather than considering vessel traffic as a factor in where to site wind farms from the outset, most traffic concerns have been relegated to the end of the process. 

Environmental impacts, Defense Department desires, fish havens, aquaculture, marine mammal migration routes – all are assessed early in the process before a wind energy area is even proposed. Impacts on vessel traffic, though, are examined at the end of this multiyear-long process. It is only at the very last step before construction, when leaseholders develop their Construction and Operation Plans, that such analysis is required.  It is inconceivable that this can be in the best interests of wind energy development or the nation.

In its interim report for the ongoing “Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study,” the Coast Guard identified a whole range of possible impacts whenever obstructions are placed in formerly open, unobstructed seaways, including:

Increased risk of allision (vessels striking fixed objects such as wind turbines and other structures)

Increased risk of collision due to greater traffic density as traffic goes around obstacles and as different types of formerly separated traffic are forced together (for example, slower tugs & tows and faster deepwater vessels)

Increased risk of grounding and/or weather-related casualties as traffic is forced closer to or farther from shore to transit around wind farms

Increased cost of maritime transport due to the additional operating, fuel and crew costs of longer transits

Increased environmental costs from more air emissions, more fuel consumption, and more oil spills.

In many instances these increased risks will be minimal and acceptable in light of the benefits provided by establishing offshore wind energy. But we have a duty to understand them upfront and to include them in our deliberations throughout the process.

If we were considering these issues ten years ago, we would have had to content ourselves with the same planning methods that had been used for hundreds of years. We would have drawn rhumb lines between ports, talked to a few seasoned operators, and made some estimates of where maritime traffic probably goes most of the time.

But the advent of AIS has given us a wealth of data to use and allows us to answer questions of additional risk and cost very precisely. We can calculate the increased risk of collision per year if traffic is compressed in a certain area. We can sum the total additional time it will take for voyages and the increase in carbon emissions if vessels must sail around an obstruction rather than proceeding directly to their destination. And we can gauge the impact on safety if small vessels that had hugged the coast in their transits are forced into the less-protected and higher seas offshore. Not only are we able to do such calculations, but we have a responsibility to do them for the sake of the maritime industry and all the mariners who must contend with the results.

Everyone Must Do Their Part

There are no villains in this story, but there are many actors, and all of them must do their part if it is to have a happy ending:

The Department of Interior should consider vessel traffic as early in its process as possible and continue to refine its understanding of vessel needs at every step along the way.

The U.S. Coast Guard (AIS, routing authority), National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (charting), and Maritime Administration (marine highways & industry advocacy) should work together, identify coastal and deepwater routes, and publish them on nautical charts. Especially important routes should be formally set aside for traffic as fairways or TSSs. And all three agencies should engage vigorously with Interior on siting decisions.

Most importantly, maritime executives must understand what is being proposed and get involved early and often. Federal agencies can debate among themselves endlessly, but the voices of impacted users get immediate attention. Unfortunately, in discussions about where to site offshore wind farms, those voices have rarely been raised. – MarEx  

Dana Goward is the Proprietor at Maritime Governance, LLC and President & Executive Director of the Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation. A retired member of the federal Senior Executive Service, retired Captain and former Director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he is making his first appearance in the magazine.