To expand clean energy offshore, bring the benefits to communities onshore
Now that the Biden administration and allies in Congress have secured the largest, most important climate bill in generations — the Inflation Reduction Act, signed this summer — the race is on to rapidly expand clean energy, include offshore wind power. But as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recognized in a little-known bill voted out last month, we need to move with the same speed and determination to make good on the promise that big public and private investments will benefit communities and workers who need it most.
To help meet national climate goals (specifically, the administration’s pledge to create 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030), the Department of the Interior is now auctioning wind farm leases in coastal waters around the country. The first-ever auction for Pacific coastal waters opened Tuesday, for example. The rules set now are expected to define the market, including future auctions of these precious public assets. Those rules should be grounded in principles of fundamental fairness.
The appeal of offshore wind power is straightforward: abundant clean energy and fewer competing uses for space than for onshore wind farms. Yet, as we scale up this energy source, it’s essential that we avoid the social, economic and environmental harms as well as the wealth extraction of the past. Communities impacted by offshore wind development can and should be full partners. Designing a system to share benefits and accountability among the federal government, industry and host communities is the most promising path to a resilient, low-carbon economy that works for everyone.
Take the coastal regions in the far north of California and southern Oregon, where two of us work in sustainable tribal infrastructure development and regional philanthropy. The region possesses vast amounts of potential offshore wind energy. The federal government’s first lease offering in the Pacific Ocean includes a stretch of this territory off the coast of Humboldt County, Calif., which could generate enough electricity to power more than half a million homes. The lease sale could also generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the federal government. However, thanks to outdated laws created to extract fossil fuels, the low-income rural communities and tribal nations in Humboldt County and other areas hosting offshore wind farms may not see any of those revenues directed to investments in the region.
For these communities, like many others across the nation and around the world, extraction of resources and wealth with little or no local benefit is an all-too-familiar story. From the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s to the logging boom a century later, the Humboldt region’s economy has been driven by extractive industries that degraded the environment and sent profits to shareholders in distant cities or a handful of private owners. For tribal nations, development has also meant displacement, land grabs, theft of cultural and natural resources, violence and even servitude. And sadly, extractive practices continue to disproportionately impact tribal communities, even under the banner of renewable energy.
Today, northern California is facing significant infrastructure challenges and climate risks, including the fastest rate of sea-level rise on the West Coast, worsening drought and wildfires, an outdated and oversubscribed electrical grid, housing shortages, brownfield and superfund clean-ups made necessary by industrial pollution, as well as a lack of reliable broadband, transportation and services. So communities in the region have taken a lesson from other rural and tribal regions facing similar challenges. To accelerate the shift to a sustainable and resilient economy, minimize harms and increase equity, a coalition of tribal nations, local governments, community and environmental organizations, labor unions, higher education institutions and others has come together to create a new partnership model for offshore wind development.
Their proposal, outlined in a formal comment to the Interior Department in August, includes mechanisms for adaptive management (to handle unknowns) and monitoring, environmental and justice safeguards, targeted benefits for tribal nations (including access to the new clean power supply), and community development. These critical activities would be resourced in two ways: credits monetized over time with a series of regional investments (e.g., in community benefits, workforce and supply chain development); and a 50-50 split of the remaining auction proceeds and the annual operating fees and rents, while still returning significant revenues to the federal government.
Such resource sharing is critical if under-resourced coastal communities are to monitor project impacts; make early, crucial investments in community services, housing and infrastructure tied to the development of the offshore wind industry (and related grid and port upgrades); and build long-term community resilience and adaptation to climate risks.
Revenue sharing with local communities for federal oil and gas leasing goes back decades, but it represents an innovative and fundamentally different approach to offshore wind energy development, particularly when combined with an equitably structured community benefit agreement. This dual approach is gaining momentum and support from Congress, states and tribes. In addition the community benefits, it also has broader benefits for business, promising more constructive, win-win relationships between advanced industries and struggling local economies. In this emerging era of large-scale, climate-smart infrastructure, energy-producing communities should become co-creators of their destinies.
A shared revenue model also aims to transform who usually benefits from infrastructure spending — a sector lacking gender and racial diversity in its workforce — and aligns with federal and state environmental as well as climate justice policies. Shared revenue and decision-making also elevate the local needs of underserved and marginalized communities. In Humboldt County alone, there are eight federally recognized Native American tribes — several without reliable infrastructure. Although the federal government’s trust responsibility requires avoiding negative impacts (new harms) to tribes, a more just and resilient approach would be developing replicable models, like the one we have outlined, for proactive tribal partnerships and investment.
A key obstacle to a more equitable revenue split is the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 (OCSLA), which stipulates that all revenue from mineral development greater than 6 nautical miles from shore goes to the federal government. Written originally for oil and gas drilling, its application to offshore wind has been questioned, even by the agencies in charge of regulating and administering it. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last year would require revenue from offshore wind leases to be shared between states and the federal government. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), just voted to approve it. As it develops further, the bill could improve on OCSLA and explicitly authorize regional resource sharing. Meanwhile, the Interior Department could apply its authority under OCSLA more flexibly, as outlined by the state of California in its analysis for the offshore wind leases, and as reflected in precedent (under other resource laws, the federal government shares certain energy revenues with states).
The impacts of climate change are now acutely felt across the West Coast, like other parts of the country. That’s why California and its coastal communities are ready to implement offshore wind power, if it’s done right. Major public bets on critical industries must be accompanied by — and should help generate — significant investments in the communities and tribal nations expected to host the clean-energy revolution.
Jana Ganion is director for sustainability and government affairs for Blue Lake Rancheria, a federally recognized Native American tribe and co-founder of the Redwood Region CORE Hub.
Bryna Lipper is CEO of the Humboldt Area and Wild Rivers Community Foundation and co-founder of the Redwood Region CORE Hub.
Xavier de Souza Briggs is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, senior adviser for the What Works Plus infrastructure collaborative, and former White House official.