ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: To protect and progress

What is the possible impact of a wind farm project on wildlife? Offshore wind, as a renewable source of energy, has the potential to strongly reduce carbon emissions, which in turn will positively affect a great many species. Placement of offshore wind farms, building the foundations and even the sound of turning blades do nonetheless also have an effect on wildlife. What is being done to keep this to minimum? The American Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) explains what actions they take regarding this subject.

The department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for offshore renewable energy development in Federal waters and anticipates future development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) from three general sources: offshore wind energy, ocean wave energy, and tidal energy. “As BOEM we are in charge of responsible development of energy (conventional and renewable) and marine minerals in Federal waters,” states Tracey Moriarty from the office of public affairs at BOEM. “Our agency focuses on offshore energy development beyond three nautical miles off the coast out to about 200 nautical miles, which is the exclusive economic zone. Within three nautical miles the States are responsible.

BOEM’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs oversees development on the east coast, and we have an office on the west coast that has the same
responsibility on the Pacific side.” In 2009, President Barack Obama announced the final regulations for the OCS Renewable Energy Program,
which was authorised by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). These regulations provide a framework for issuing leases, easements and
rights-of-way for OCS activities that support production and transmission of energy from sources other than oil and natural gas.

Environmental research 

“We support the leasing and permitting process by funding the collection of basic environment information. For example, we have whales, sea birds,
and sea turtles in our waters and our goal is to identify habitat and/or migratory routes”, says Dr. Mary Boatman, science coordinator for the
Office of Renewable Energy Programs at BOEM. She is responsible for the Atlantic region and works with agency scientists to provide scientific
information for decisions regarding leasing or permits. Boatman: “We help provide the necessary scientific information on environmental issues of
concern to the public. When we know of a specific location for an offshore wind project, we can do more targeted research. We have an abundance of
data, it is just making sure that we have all the right data for that particular site. Birds are a concern for offshore wind facility development. Recently
we funded the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to collect data about sea ducks using satellite tags to trace where they are moving. We want to see how they move and to be able to understand this, so that we can either adjust existing plans or choose to still go ahead. One example is a site in Massachusetts where we reduced the area offered for lease because so many sea ducks regularly used a portion of the area.

Sound effective

Dr. Mary Boatman: “Offshore wind farms are not only solid objects in our seas, sound may be emitted during their construction, which may disturb
sea life including marine mammals and fish.” Sound may also be used as a way of tracking mammals in the ocean. BOEM uses acoustic monitoring
devices to listen to sound while, for example, looking for whales. “We want to track how they move along the coast. How they migrate. Some whales, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, are an endangered species. If you can listen and follow them, you can better understand how they move through an area. This information can be used to determine when it is best to start foundation construction. When you know the timing you can be more sensitive to this and thus more protective”, comments Boatman. “What we aim to do is be a good steward to the ocean. It is not just
a case of ‘here is a good site, let’s start building’. Our nation needs this energy. There is a fine line where we must also, and very much so, be protective of our waters. We have the first foundations off Rhode Island. We’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to collect data about sound to improve models to better understand future projects.”

Future challenges

“One challenge that BOEM often faces is how to address the needs and promote compatible uses of various stakeholders of our ocean, including the
military, offshore wind industry, maritime industry, recreation and tourism industry, environmental organisations, and professional fishermen to name just a few. This is why ‘early and often’ stakeholder engagement is so important to BOEM’s commercial renewable energy leasing process. We work hard to address potential conflicts early on in the planning process so that we can avoid or mitigate problems down the road”, states James F. Bennett, Chief, Office of Renewable Energy Programs at BOEM. Where will the United States stand in five years time? “We can expect an offshore wind farm operating in state waters within the next year or so. This will be a historic event, and just the beginning for a pipeline of projects
to follow, also steadily moving forward with developing plans in Federal waters. Now that we have completed the leasing phase for many of the offshore wind projects on the Atlantic, we have begun the site assessment phase, and look forward to overseeing the construction and operations phase, and we will keep the public informed of our progress.”

Rebecca van den Berge-McFedries

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Offshore WIND Magazine