With offshore wind energy activities underway from Massachusetts to North Carolina, we stand at the vanguard of an exciting offshore wind energy boom as states continue to advance ambitious climate and clean energy goals. But these states are acting in the absence of federal leadership, which poses an unnecessary hindrance for the first of these major offshore wind developments.
If successful, the Vineyard Wind project off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island will be the largest offshore wind energy site in the country, and could provide power for 400,000 homes. It is an example of the kind of project that will not only provide the jobs and infrastructure necessary to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, but will also invest in a cleaner future for both people and wildlife.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management of the Department of the Interior recently released a revised environmental document that addresses the impacts of the project, as well as the cumulative impacts of all 16 offshore wind leases in the waters of the Atlantic, on our marine resources. However, because the Trump administration has gutted two critical federal wildlife protection laws – the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – that analysis is woefully inadequate.
Previously, any environmental analysis of the site would have to follow NEPA and take into consideration the MBTA. These laws have successfully guided the responsible development of projects while renewable energy has become the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, with wind energy increasing 30 percent percent per year and solar energy expanding by 48 percent per year over the last decade.
The Trump administration has undercut both of these foundational laws at a time when they are needed most for the construction of responsible offshore wind energy development. By weakening the MBTA and NEPA, the administration has also curtailed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to comment on the impacts of offshore wind on migratory birds, and has cut the public’s ability to participate in environmental review. Public comments on Vineyard Wind project are open until July 27, but according to the new rules, the comments must be cited and sourced to an unnecessary academic degree that prevents the general public from having their comments considered.
Consequently, the updated environmental analysis of the Vineyard Wind project fails to adequately analyze and address the effect on 177 species of birds that may be vulnerable to population level impacts, collisions, or displacement by the construction and operation of offshore wind turbines. These include seabirds like the Red-throated Loon and Arctic Tern, and migratory birds like the Bobolink and Blackpoll Warbler that pass through the wind energy areas at night.
None of this needs to happen. The project could move forward successfully if the previous standards of environmental review are applied, and the National Audubon Society stands ready to assist. Our own science has shown that the biggest threat to the survival of birds, by far, is climate change. That’s why we work with all renewable industries—including wind—to ensure that facilities are built and operated safely for birds. When these safeguards are observed, the benefit to birds and wildlife from the reduction in harmful emissions far outweighs any risks that may be posed by their construction. For decades, laws like the MBTA and NEPA helped ensure that this was so.
As an organization dedicated to protecting birds now and for generations to come, we want to see the project succeed. Wind energy is critical to achieving a cleaner future by generating power without contributing harmful emissions that add to climate change.
However, our endorsement of the project hinges on the same thing that we require of all renewable energy developments: it must be sited and operated to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any effects on birds, wildlife and marine ecosystems.
While large-scale renewable energy projects likely will not avoid all incidental deaths of birds, we have also seen that steps like careful analysis and monitoring of potential sites prior to building, avoiding migratory flight paths, and investing in technology that helps to better understand how birds travel and interact with these sites can greatly reduce the risk to birds.
But we need the enforcement of federal law to ensure this success, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has played this critical role for decades. In addition to calling for Vineyard Wind to move forward with the kind of environmental oversight that should still be required by the MBTA and NEPA, we must ensure that those laws remain in place at their full intended strength for all projects going forward. The consequences of gutting those laws risk both the potential for a cleaner future, and the very survival of the birds that we love.
Sarah Greenberger is the National Audubon Society’s Vice President for Conservation Policy.