Monday, March 12, 2007

Demystifying the permitting of offshore wind farms

Wind power, and particularly offshore wind, continues to be cited as a clean and green way to generate electricity. Offshore technology has been realized in Europe, but has met serious opposition (and much support too) in the United States. The permitting process has been a slow and complex here in the United States as illustrated by Cape Wind Associate’s proposal to construct 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. Though the project began in 2001, it is still over a year away from being permitted. Despite this lengthy time table, now is an opportune time to jump in and examine the complexities of permitting offshore renewable energy in the United States.

Minerals Management Service is the leading federal agency in permitting all offshore renewable energy in United States. States, the US Coast Guard, the FAA, the Department of Defense, and others also have the task of reviewing project proposals. This brings us to the most recent development in the permitting process here in the United States.

The recent release of Cape Wind Associates 5,000 page Final Environmental Impact Review (FEIR) to the state of Massachusetts has come before the release of Minerals Management Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) of the project.

This statement may mean nothing to you, but if you are interested in the future of offshore wind power in the United States you should be paying attention.

By releasing their FEIR to the state of Massachusetts, Cape Wind Associates has triggered a 30-day public comment period, which ends in eleven short days (March 22nd 2007). At the end of the comment period, Massachusetts has seven days to decide if the FEIR includes all information relevant to the public and appropriately assesses the scope of the proposed project. If Massachusetts finds the FEIR to be adequate, state agencies will be required to use the FEIR as the guiding document in their permit review.

Though the filing of the FEIR means that the permitting process is moving forward, it seems that Cape Wind is pushing forward without all relevant information. The filing of this document has come before the release of several other key documents from federal agencies that include the United States Coast Guard, the FAA, the Department of Defense, and Minerals Management Service. With several key documents not yet filed, it does not seem possible for the FEIR to contain all relevant information about the project. If the state of Massachusetts finds this document adequate, state agencies will have to move forward and make decisions when data is missing.

In 2005, Ellen Roy Herzfelder, former Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs, asked that Cape Wind associates wait for federal agencies to file key documents before proceeding at the state level. She writes, “I believe coordinated review is a good government practice, both in terms of allowing for maximum public and agency understanding of the project and to ensure that review by regulatory agencies is as efficient as possible.”

In addition to recognizing the importance of a coordinated state and federal review process, Cape Wind Associates are asking the public to read and respond to a 5,000 page document in just 30 days. Stakeholders are asking that Cape Wind Associates withdraw their FEIR until federal agencies release their key documents, and are also calling for the public comment period to be extended sixty more days.

If Massachusetts finds the FEIR “adequate” it is likely that Cape Wind will run a press release claiming victory. Not so fast. Though this would be a step forward in the projects permitting process, it only gives state agencies a framework to review the project.

The state of Massachusetts and all federal agencies reviewing the project still need to report their findings and grant Cape Wind a permit before the project is built. All said, do not expect a final decision to come down until sometime in 2008.

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