by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
On his first day in office, Pres. Joe Biden vowed “aggressive action to tackle climate change” and issued an executive order seeking to double offshore wind energy production by 2030. Gov. Roy Cooper followed suit with a ludicrous executive order for 8 gigawatts (GW) of highly expensive, unreliable offshore wind energy production by 2040, which would be enormous: 8 GW represents 23% of North Carolina’s existing capacity.
A study presented before the North Carolina Energy Policy Council earlier this year estimated that 8 GW of offshore wind production would cost North Carolinians 45,000 to 67,000 permanent jobs. Those estimates, however, were based solely on the economic impacts of expected electricity price hikes and did not include jobs lost to coastal tourism and commercial fishing.
On April 7, 2021, alarmed by the profound and irreversible effects that offshore wind energy development would have on marine habitats and biodiversity, physical oceanography, and ultimately their livelihoods, 1,665 members of fishing communities in every coastal U.S. state wrote to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). They stressed that offshore wind decisions “must be based on cost-benefit analyses, alternative ways to address carbon emissions, food productivity, and ocean health.” They chided the Biden administration for championing “aggressive” action for offshore wind “without calculating cost, carbon reduction benefits, or marine ecosystems stress.” Noting that the administration’s aggressive approach was in conflict with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s former standard against approving offshore wind projects that would “cause unreasonable interference with fishing,” they concluded the letter with a list of requests for accommodations and mitigations.
The letter stressed that offshore wind energy is “an ocean use that directly conflicts with fishing and imposes significant impacts to marine habitats, biodiversity, and physical oceanography.”
In a way, the Biden administration seems to agree with the fishermen’s assessment, but not in a way that coastal fishing communities could welcome. BOEM noted in its decision in favor of the Vineyard Wind project south of Martha’s Vineyard that it would result in “major impacts” to “commercial fishing and for-hire recreational fishing.” BOEM anticipated that commercial fishing would abandon those sites and lose income.
The Wilmington East leasing area off the coast of Bald Head Island — a massive area over three times the size of the City of Wilmington that would be used for offshore wind production — is a well-known, highly productive area for fishing. But getting to 8 GW of offshore wind capacity would require placing massive wind turbines in many, many more areas off the beaches of North Carolina than Wilmington East and the other currently identified wind energy areas, Kitty Hawk and Wilmington West. It portends potentially devastating disruptions to fisheries and sensitive marine ecosystems.
The oceanic waters off the coast of North Carolina are home to certain highly unique features. For example, the mid-Atlantic Cold Pool features “seasonal stratification of cooler water close to the bottom, peaking in summer and turning over in fall and spring [is] important to the survival of key, commercially important species including scallops and surf clams, and is a driver of primary production and nutrients for the ocean food web.” It faces significant yet critically unstudied effects from the Kitty Hawk wind project.
Research from Rutgers University in February 2021 reviewing experiences with smaller offshore wind turbine arrays in Europe raised serious questions about potential impacts of projects like Kitty Hawk on the mid-Atlantic boreal fauna and the Cold Pool process. Acknowledging great uncertainty in modeling and forecasting, researchers raised several key questions, including what effects turbines would have on mixing in the water column, what impacts might they have on current velocity, what effects would loss of wind energy have on sea surfaces, what combined impacts would those factors have, and what all of those potential effects would mean for the Cold Pool and dependent ecology.
They underscored the ecological and economic importance of the Cold Pool:
The Cold Pool sustains a fauna whose range extends farther south than would be anticipated by its latitude and supports vast fisheries, including the most lucrative shellfish fisheries in the U.S. The region is highly productive, notably supporting the largest non-symbiotic clams on ocean shelves anywhere in the world and the second most lucrative single-species fishery, sea scallops, in the western Atlantic Ocean. The Cold Pool also regulates migratory behavior of fish that constitute the most important finfish fisheries in this region.”
Nevertheless, BOEM is already moving to identify two more wind energy areas (so far) off the Outer Banks, which would also impact the Cold Pool.
North Carolina is also home to the collision of the Labrador Current (cold water flowing down from the north) and the Gulf Stream (warm water flowing up from the south), which happens around Cape Hatteras and which creates the ocean churn that caused the area to be known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 2015 the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Donald R. van der Vaart, wrote to BOEM about the threat against this unique and important feature off the North Carolina coast from offshore wind development:
[T]he convergence of the southward flowing cold water in the Labrador Current and the northward flowing warm waters of the Gulf Stream, in conjunction with the Western Boundary Undercurrent, causes an upwelling of nutrient-rich waters over unique bathymetric features and enhances the ocean’s productivity off the North Carolina coast. Consequently, our state’s coastal and ocean waters are filled with a particularly diverse and important mix of fish and other organisms at various stages of their life cycle, including a variety of endangered and threatened sea turtles, pelagic seabirds and marine mammals.
Van der Vaart requested among other things that Environmental Impact Statements (EIS’s) be prepared for the construction and operation of any wind energy facilities off North Carolina shores. Failure to do so, he explained, puts these sensitive habitats at risk.
A previous research brief discussed the threats of offshore wind energy construction and operation to endangered and threatened marine and avian species. Those negative effects include population impacts and habitat disruption from site selection, construction, pile driving, and operational noise, and of course they would also impact commercial seafood populations as well.
Of concern to the coastal fishing industry (and consumers) is that these effects would go unobserved. On top of that, wind turbines are known to interfere with the ability to estimate commercial seafood populations for determining sustainable harvest levels.
Politicians like Biden and Cooper may want to rush offshore wind development aggressively, but in this aspect as with so many others surrounding offshore wind energy, the wiser course would be to slow down, fully study the consequences, and weigh the expected benefits against the costs.