Note: This story was originally published on August 27, 2019.
As Connecticut races to get its first offshore wind projects on track for construction, a collision of factors appear to be working against them.
To start with, the timing couldn’t be worse.
The state and its offshore-wind-loving neighbors all face a year-end expiration of a federal tax credit that helps finance these projects – the first major attempts in the U.S. But in Connecticut some problems – including at least one self-inflicted one – could mean forgoing that money.
Most critical are two issues. The first is the controversy at the Connecticut Port Authority (CPA), which has placed the quasi-public agency under audit and so far sent three people to the exits. The CPA runs the state-owned Pier in New London – now angling to be the premier staging area for offshore wind construction in the state, if not the region.
But a contract between the state and the offshore wind partnership of the Danish powerhouse Orsted and Eversource to pour tens of millions of dollars into a $93-million infrastructure upgrade at the port is yet to be completed.
The second issue involves a potentially ominous signal to all offshore wind projects, as well as the states supporting them, sent from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM – pronounced bome) in the U.S. Department of Interior.
Earlier this month, BOEM delayed approval of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Massachusetts-backed 800-megawatt project by Vineyard Wind, slated to be the first major grid-based offshore wind project in the U.S.
The new environmental impact statement, which could take well into 2020 to complete, is supposed to look at the cumulative impact of the many offshore wind projects now being planned off the east coast – some of which involve Connecticut. But there are no details of the study beyond that and it’s unclear whether the study would be specific to the Vineyard Wind project or if it constitutes a change in the Trump administration’s previously stated commitment to offshore wind.
“How do we interpret this?” asked Francis Pullaro, executive director of RENEW Northeast, an advocacy group for the renewable energy industry and environmental community in New England and New York. “Is the Department of Interior using the process to foot drag and doing everything it can to be an impediment to the process? Or do we take them at their word? Can they easily make a case they have legitimate issues there? Or is there some other motivation unknown to the rest of us?”
There’s a lot a stake given the number and size of the offshore wind projects in development around the region, Pullaro said.
“How do we interpret this? Is the Department of Interior using the process to foot drag and doing everything it can to be an impediment to the process?”
Executive Director, RENEW Northeast
Caitlin Peale Sloan, senior attorney in the Boston office of the Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental legal advocacy group that worked with Vineyard Wind to ensure endangered right whales were protected, pointed out that a cumulative impact analysis was submitted – albeit before several other large offshore wind projects in New York and New Jersey were approved.
“I am concerned that the fact that BOEM didn’t include these big projects has given them an opening to slow down all projects,” she said. “The Vineyard Wind federal process is really a bellwether to see if the federal government will follow through on its promise for offshore wind.”
President Trump, himself, has had a fraught relationship with the wind turbines located near his Scottish resort, even falsely accusing such turbines of causing cancer. Although his first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, supported offshore wind, it’s unclear where Zinke’s replacement – David Bernhardt, a former oil and coal lobbyist, stands.
Trump has also pushed for oil and gas drilling off the east coast, which is opposed by just about every state on the eastern seaboard. And many see a double standard potentially at work as the Trump administration cuts regulations governing fossil fuel extraction while coming down hard on offshore wind.
But some offshore wind advocates say the delay is understandable.
“It’s the first large-scale project in a brand new industry in the U.S. We’re going to see some bumps in the road,” said Nancy Sopko, co-director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, an independent project at the University of Delaware. Sopko pointed out that while offshore wind has been operating in Europe for 20 years, it’s new to U.S. regulators and the agencies that have to permit the projects and consult on the applications.
“Cue the thunder,” she said. “I actually don’t see this as the doomsday prediction for the industry that some do.”
“It’s the first large-scale project in a brand new industry in the U.S. We’re going to see some bumps in the road. I actually don’t see this as the doomsday prediction for the industry that some do.”
Co-director, Special Initiative on Offshore Wind
Neither does Laura Morton, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore wind at the American Wind Energy Association, where Sopko used to work. “The big question is regulatory certainty,” she said. “I do believe BOEM is trying to be justifiably balanced.”
One part of that balancing act involves the fishing industry, which seems to have driven the delay after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of NOAA, refused to sign off on the Vineyard Wind environmental impact statement. Indeed, the fishing industry is among the few cheering the government’s protracted analysis of the plan.
“It sent a subtle shock wave through the whole industry,” said Ben Goetsch, fisheries liaison for Briarpatch Enterprises in Milford. Goetsch, a lawyer who represents fisheries with legislative advocacy, also operates his own shellfishing business. “It’s a litmus test for the whole huge development for the eastern seaboard. We stand with NOAA on this.”
One of the issues Goetsch and others, including non-fishing interests, point to is the need for coordinated transit lanes for fishing vessels from wind area to wind area so fisherman don’t face unnecessarily long and disjointed trips. He also worries about the cabling from the turbines.
“Fishing gear certainly does not want to interact with these cables,” he said.
Connecticut believes it is already addressing issues like these and others that could affect fishermen. Just before the Vineyard Wind delay and the CPA matter began unspooling, the state fielded a commission to rapidly pull together environmental considerations for offshore wind, especially those related to the fishing industry. They were rushed to be included in an equally rushed request for proposals for a new round of offshore wind procurement by the state before the tax credit deadline.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection unveiled the RFP in mid-August for at least 400 megawatts of the 2,000-megawatt mandate for offshore wind approved by the legislature this past session.
Victoria Hackett, the new deputy commissioner for energy, said in email responses that the Commission on Environmental Standards had communicated with BOEM and the NMFS about federal processes during the commission’s deliberations, and those agencies’ input was reflected in the final commission report and recommendations.
“DEEP has not had direct communications with BOEM about this particular decision,” she said of the Vineyard Wind delay. “We take the decision at face value. The RFP includes provisions that will address some of the issues that have come to the fore on the Vineyard Wind MA project.”
Hackett pointed to a section that specifically says eligible bidders must submit an adaptive plan “to avoid, minimize, and mitigate risks to Stakeholders,” specifically mentioning “risk to commercial fisheries, risk to marine mammals and sea turtles with specific reference of underwater sound and collision, risk to birds and bats, and risk to other species.”
All of this, however, is complicated by the problems at the Connecticut Port Authority, which have the potential to threaten the state’s goal of long-term economic development related to the on-shore components of offshore wind, as well as its obvious benefits of transitioning to renewable power to limit the carbon emissions that are the biggest contributors to climate change worldwide.
While work on the New London port redevelopment plans is continuing, some privately concede that the port authority upheaval is an unnecessary distraction.
“It’s clear the Port Authority issues need to be resolved immediately, if not sooner so that we can get down to business at hand,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, who is ranking member on the Energy and Technology Committee and whose district includes the port.
“It’s clear the Port Authority issues need to be resolved immediately, if not sooner so that we can get down to business at hand. We can’t let another opportunity slip through the cracks.”
Sen. Paul Formica
He said the authority was hastily crafted in 2015 and the vetting process on how it was going to operate was limited. “In fairness to everyone, I don’t know that anybody could have foreseen the enormity of what would have been on their plate.”
Formica is also well-aware of the danger that the current problems could chase away future investments like the kind committed by Orsted and Eversource. “We can’t let that happen,” he said. “We can’t let another opportunity slip through the cracks.”
For its part, Eversource said progress toward finalizing the redevelopment contract is on track.
“We haven’t seen any slowdowns in what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Michael Ausere, vice president of business development. “We’re very confident in the Lamont administration and leadership changes bringing this about. We have seen unwavering commitment.”
David Kooris, deputy commissioner at the Department of Economic and Community Development, is in charge of both that commitment and running the troubled port authority.
“A second full-time job for the time being,” he said. Kooris is a member of the CPA board and is now its acting chair. Lamont appointed him to handle an outside review of the agency to come up with plans for how to reform it.
While his review is still in its early stages, he offered a definitive “no,” when asked if he has uncovered anything that would be detrimental to the offshore wind effort.
“The most concerning thing that we’ve found are around bookkeeping and reporting,” he said, such as incomplete filings.
As for wholesale fraud? “I can’t say definitively because we’re pretty early in the review, but I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.”
In the meantime, he has to move along parallel paths – being transparent about what’s discovered and instituting reforms while also moving ahead with port authority business – namely, offshore wind development.
“We’re trying to demonstrate confidence that it is able to move forward with the biggest project probably ever done,” he said. “I’ve been in nearly daily contact with Orsted and Eversource. The governor has spoken with them to convey how important this project is to the state and how committed we are to advancing it.”
“We’re trying to demonstrate confidence that it is able to move forward with the biggest project probably ever done.”
Acting Chair, CPA
Kooris has also been in regular conversations with Vineyard Wind – which has its eye on developing a base in Bridgeport. Discussions with the private entities that operate that port have been occurring for nearly a year – none of which is seen as taking anything from New London.
Rather, those efforts are widely viewed as a way to enhance the state’s commitment to offshore wind, potentially making it more desirable for the largest parts of any future supply chain.
“That’s the real home run,” Kooris said. “I think we’re a way off from a lot of the manufacturing shifting over to this side of the Atlantic, but if and when they do, they’re going to want to co-locate near the big players. That’s the big endgame.”
He expects the Orsted/Eversource contract to be done at about the same time as audit.
“We will be reassessing the wind deal and putting some new eyes on it internally to make sure there aren’t any issues there. But no, we will not have implemented all of the recommendations coming out of the review by the time we’re looking to advance the wind deal.”