A new era in coordinated ocean management for the U.S.

Dr. Sandra Whitehouse is a consultant who serves as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy, where she focuses on the Smart Ocean Planning, Ocean Acidification and Trash Free Seas programs. For the past twenty years Dr. Whitehouse has used her marine science expertise to advise clients on a variety of environmental policy issues. She has served as the chair of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council. Dr. Whitehouse holds a B.S. from Yale University and a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

Among the challenges that have been faced by the nascent U.S. offshore wind industry are a siloed ocean management regime, a complex stakeholder environment, and a lack of easily accessible data and information on existing ocean resources and uses. However, the U.S. recently took a major step towards addressing these issues.

The Northeast (covering waters from Connecticut to Maine) and Mid-Atlantic (covering waters from Virginia to New York) regions, through their respective regional planning bodies, have both released first-of-their-kind regional ocean plans that facilitate more coordinated ocean management, including for decisions made around leasing, permitting and developing offshore wind projects. Known as the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan and the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Action Plan, these plans are the United States’ first effort at coordinated marine spatial planning for federal ocean waters. They mirror similar efforts across Europe that have significantly contributed toward establishing the continent as a leader in the offshore wind industry.

As the U.S. begins to tap the immense wind resources off our own coastlines, our ocean plans will enable stronger collaboration across multiple ocean sectors, increase coordination among relevant permitting and leasing agencies, and ultimately facilitate project development in appropriate places.

For both marine spatial planning and offshore wind development, there are many opportunities for the U.S. to learn and to build upon successes in Europe.

With over 11,000 MW of installed capacity and over 80 offshore wind farms off the coast of 11 countries (including sites under construction), Europe has established itself as a leader in developing and deploying offshore wind technologies. Not only is Europe leading the world in developing offshore wind, it also has a long record of developing marine spatial plans to coordinate ocean uses across multiple sectors in their ever more crowded common waters. Over 15 countries have or are developing marine spatial plans to some degree across Europe, including offshore wind heavy-hitters such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. It is no coincidence that comprehensive spatial plans that help to identify areas of least conflict, also help lead the continent to become the global powerhouse it currently is.

Ocean planning in the United States

Last fall, I gave an update on the ocean planning process here in the United States, drawing on the success of the Block Island Wind Farm project and Rhode Island’s state ocean plan. Thanks to the Rhode Island state planning process (Ocean SAMP), which included extensive collaboration with the fishing industry, port operators, recreational users, environmental groups and other stakeholders, Deepwater Wind was able to move from concept to construction in less than a decade.

The newly-released regional ocean plans for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic offer the opportunity to “scale up” those benefits for larger commercial project.  Now that these first two regions – covering waters from Virginia to Maine – have released their draft ocean plans, let’s take a look at what is in the plans and what it means for the offshore wind industry moving forward.

What do these plans mean for the U.S. offshore wind industry?

The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic plans both have similar goals: providing robust data and information on ocean uses and resources that can help facilitate better decision-making, garnering input from stakeholders and increasing coordination among state and federal agencies.

For offshore wind developers, both plans mean better access to information and a platform for engagement with other ocean sectors. From commercial fisheries to maritime transportation and everything in between, there are many activities that could potentially overlap with a proposed offshore wind project. With both plans and their related data portals, you now have access to a wealth of information that can help visualize some of these overlapping uses, and reduce conflict in all aspects of decision-making. The ocean plans should have significant utility throughout the entire offshore wind project development phase, from project siting to decommissioning.

Specifically, federal agencies in both regions – such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – have committed in the plans to:

  • Identify and notify potentially affected stakeholders in proposed project areas earlier in project planning processes. This will be done a variety of ways, ultimately aimed at improving outreach to industry and stakeholders related to renewable energy development. For wind companies, this means earlier and more effective engagement with existing ocean users, and identification of potential conflicts to reduce the risk of project litigation.
  • Incorporate maps and data from the plan into environmental reviews associated with new offshore energy or submarine cable proposals. For wind companies, this means that they and all the reviewing agencies have access to and can rely on the same information, publicly accessible via the ocean planning data Portals (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic).
  • Ensure the plan and data portal are used by both agencies and project developers by incorporating the plans and portals in to existing internal agency guidance on NEPA and other applicable laws. Federal agencies will identify the ocean plan and data in their internal guidelines to developers as an important source of information to inform proposed survey work associated with energy and communication infrastructure development proposals.

Next steps

As the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast finalize their ocean plans, we strongly urge people who work in the wind industry all along the supply chain to submit comments that will help guide the finalization and revision process. Your voice is critical in ensuring that the aspects of the plans that focus on offshore renewable energy meet your needs.

Comments on the Northeast Plan are due by July 25th can be submitted online. Information found here.

Comments on the Mid-Atlantic Plan are due by September 6th can be submitted via email. Information found here.

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