Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, has accused the Trump administration of “slow-walking” offshore wind approvals with an eye toward helping natural-gas suppliers.
The U.S. offshore wind industry, which is gearing up to deliver 25 gigawatts or so of capacity over the coming decade, is effectively on hold while the country’s first major project, the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind sited off the coast of Massachusetts, awaits its final federal permits.
Last August the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) called for additional environmental reviews, delaying Vineyard and in effect the larger industry as a whole. BOEM has said it intends to issue a final decision in December.
“I think what we’re seeing is a deliberate slow-walk, and not just staff unfamiliarity and hesitation [at BOEM],” Whitehouse said in a prerecorded interview played Monday at Greentech Media’s Power & Renewables Summit.
Whitehouse is a noted climate hawk in the Senate, whose state of Rhode Island is home to the country’s first and only commercial offshore wind farm, the 30 MW Block Island project owned by Ørsted.
Whitehouse has previously been critical of the way Vineyard Wind — owned by Iberdrola’s Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners — engaged with commercial fishing operations in its early outreach efforts, citing Block Island as what he views as a more successful example of stakeholder engagement.
“Unfortunately, some of the early players coming behind [Block Island] with much bigger programs didn’t learn our lesson about working with the other stakeholders to try to clear obvious obstacles out of your way informally before you file [permits],” Whitehouse said in Monday’s interview. “They walked right into a firestorm of opposition from people who they had not listened to and had not engaged with, and so the regulatory process bogged down.”
“And I think the Trump administration saw that as an opportunity to slow-walk the permitting of offshore wind. Because every year you don’t have offshore wind off New England’s shores, the gas industry is selling more gas to keep homes warm — and I think they’re very aware of that.”
Despite his previous criticism of stakeholder engagement in Massachusetts — a position that has drawn concern from environmentalists eager to see the offshore wind industry take off — Whitehouse said he does not believe that environmental concerns are the primary reason behind Vineyard Wind’s permitting delays.
“It’s almost comical to see this completely anti-environment administration feign great solicitude for the ocean environment as it delays these projects,” he added.
Plan B on climate legislation: Corporate America
Elsewhere in the interview with Wood Mackenzie’s Ed Crooks, Whitehouse suggested there is a potential path forward on climate legislation under a President Joe Biden even if Republicans keep control of the Senate.
Under that scenario, it’s possible that corporate America will step up and exert enough political pressure to get meaningful climate and clean energy legislation passed. “For corporate America, this is starting to move out of consumer relations, investor relations and public relations, and it’s just beginning to be something they might be willing to show up and fight for,” he said. “That would make a very big difference.”
In contrast, Whitehouse is “not very bullish” on the prospects for progress through administrative and executive action under a Biden administration at odds with a Republican-held Senate.
“I think if you go down a regulatory path, that likely ends up in litigation, and that litigation likely ends up in the Supreme Court — and there are powerful interests at work in the United States to make sure the Supreme Court is very polluter-friendly.”
“That’s a very fraught path,” Whitehouse said. “I think the president would be much better advised working through corporate America and using the bully pulpit to put pressure on Republican senators and emphasizing the economic warnings that are out there, to try to build a case for getting something done legislatively.”