On Friday, Nov. 12, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced the designation of the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area (MB WEA) offshore California’s central coast. This WEA, the second WEA designated off the California coast in the past four months, encompasses 376 square miles.
On July 29, BOEM expanded the size of the original Morro Bay Call area from 311 square miles to a proposed 399 square miles, adding an east and a west extension. The MB WEA excluded the east extension proposed in July. According to BOEM, the MB WEA is capable of generating 2.924 gigawatts (GW) of wind power.
In short, there are now two WEAs off the California coast. The other, located off the city of Eureka (between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon), is called the Humboldt WEA.
It appears to be a foregone conclusion that offshore wind is coming to waters near you. In terms of the U.S. West Coast, there is interest in waters off Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California. Earlier this year, Grays Harbor Wind LLC announced that it was proposing to develop a new floating offshore wind project 16-25 miles off the coast of Grays Harbor, Washington.
During a recent meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s ad hoc Marine Planning Committee, it was confirmed that draft Call Areas were going to be presented and discussed during the January 2022 BOEM-Oregon Intergovernmental Task Force meeting. It was also revealed that BOEM currently plans to designate WEAs off the Oregon coast during the third quarter of 2022.
Before issuing a lease, regulations require BOEM to include the following four-steps: (1) Issuing a Call for information and nominations (Call Area Identification); (2) Completing the Area Identification Process (Wind Energy Area Designation); (3) Publication of Proposed Sale Notice; and (4) Publication of the Final Sale Notice. Steps two through four are outlined and described below.
Some confusion remains regarding what the designation of a WEA actually means, and what it may mean for the fishing industry (commercial and recreational) and dependent communities. The purpose of the WEA designation is to identify areas on the Outer Continental Shelf that appear most suitable for wind energy leasing and development. While a consideration of potential impacts to existing users is supposed to be part of the analysis, the fishing industry has repeatedly expressed frustration about the process, the poor state of data utilized to inform where our activities take place, etc.
Before BOEM conducts lease sales within a WEA, however, it will conduct environmental review pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with leasing some or all of the WEA. BOEM has indicated it intends to conduct lease sales for both the MB WEA and Humboldt WEA in the fall of 2022.
If BOEM holds a lease sale for some or all of the WEA, the issuance of a lease would grant the lessee the exclusive right to submit for BOEM’s review a plan proposing development of the leasehold. The lease itself does not authorize any activity within the lease area.
This is a nuanced and important legal distinction, as BOEM does not consider the issuance of a lease to constitute an irreversible and irretrievable commitment of agency resources toward the construction of a wind energy facility. As noted in Fisheries Survival Fund v Jewell Civil Action No. 2016-2409 (D.D.C. 2018) District Court, District of Columbia, “an agency’s NEPA obligations mature ‘only once it reaches a critical stage of a decision which will result in irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources to an action that will affect the environment’.”
This ruling has made legal challenges to the siting decision-making process difficult, at best.
Rest assured though, BOEM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) which will primarily consider the potential impacts from site characterization activities, such as biological, geological, geotechnical, and archaeological surveys, and site assessment activities, such as meteorological and oceanographic buoy deployment.
If after completion of the EA, BOEM decides to move forward with the leasing process, it would do so by issuing a Proposed Sale Notice (PSN). The PSN includes identifies the proposed area(s) for lease, associated terms and conditions, and a proposed format of the competitive auction. This would be followed by a public comment period to inform the final lease sale terms and conditions published in the Final Sale Notice (FSN). As noted above, BOEM is targeting the fall of 2022 for auctions/lease sales off of California and the third quarter of 2023 for the Oregon coast.
The successful lessee would then be required to submit a Construction and Operations Plan (COP). The COP contains information describing all planned facilities that the leaseholder proposes to construct and use for the project, along with all proposed activities, including the proposed construction activities, commercial operations, and conceptual decommissioning plans for all planned facilities, including onshore and support facilities.
One of the concerns raised by the fishing industry is the piecemeal approach utilized by the BOEM on the West Coast. This has hindered an analysis of the cumulative impacts of offshore wind farms. For example, the impacts of the 206 square mile Humboldt WEA may be vastly different if there are several other WEAs in Southern Oregon and/or Northern California.
BOEM has already indicated that it will present draft Call Areas off Oregon in January, 2022, and there’s the potential of at least one in Southern Oregon. BOEM has acknowledged this concern and acknowledged that it is a problem.
We at the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations are hopeful that BOEM’s commitment to brainstorm ways to identify examples of what is considered a cumulative impact earlier in the process yields positive and measurable results.
While the threat of offshore wind is not new, the speed with which it is coming is. The federal administration announced a goal to deploy 30 GW of offshore wind off the U.S. by 2030. We have to remain engaged, even when it appears we are not making any headway.
Mike Conroy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell phone to: (415) 638-9730.