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Thursday, February 1, 2024

Pay to play

Hundreds of Millions of Dollars for Mitigation Can Ease Offshore Wind Opponents’ Pain

By Mary Lhowe / ecoRI News contributor

Opponents of offshore wind offer different reasons for their position: fear of impacts on the marine ecology; fear of loss of income for fishers; fear of loss of tourism dollars and private property values due to the sight of the turbines on the horizon.

The cloudy threat of wind projects off the New England coast comes with a golden — not silver — lining. That gold would arrive in the form of millions of dollars contractually promised to communities by developers in the form of mitigations, sometimes through a mechanism called host community or good neighbor agreements.

Even the towns and historic property owners who dread wind farms but yearn for funds to do worthy projects could be excused for reacting to mitigation deals in similar fashion to the character Gaz in the movie “The Full Monty.” Watching men audition for a new amateur dance troupe, Gaz observes the impressive talents of one particular auditioner, and mutters, “Gentlemen, the lunchbox has landed.”

A brief tally of the “lunchbox” of mitigations — touching on communities and institutions from Long Island, N.Y., to Cape Cod to Nantucket to Portsmouth, R.I. — shows a total of about $282 million in negotiated mitigation payments from 2017 to this month. (see below for details).

A few notable opponents of offshore wind are not looking for money. Just the past year, Rhode Island entities have filed at least three civil lawsuits against the state and federal governments over the wind farms, objecting to what they call rushed, biased, and improper permitting processes. A fourth lawsuit, with a long list of plaintiffs that includes a national wind opposition group, was filed Jan. 19.

Green Oceans, a Little Compton-based citizens group, filed a civil suit in the Rhode Island courts in June 2023 against the Coastal Resources Management Council, claiming the permitting process was flawed and asking for a permission granted by CRMC to be rescinded. 

Similarly, the Preservation Society of Newport County and the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation on Block Island sued the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in November, claiming the entire permitting process for the South Fork and Revolution Wind projects was done wrongly and should be re-done.

Neither suit asks for financial mitigation from developers.

Not so much for Rhode Island fishers, and towns stretching from New York to Nantucket. They are taking the money. Some examples, starting with the most recent:

$23.2 million to the town of Portsmouth, under a host community agreement signed this month with SouthCoast Wind. Developer Shell Renewables and Energy Solutions and Ocean Winds.

$12.9 million to compensate Rhode Island fishers and onshore fishing communities for losses because of Revolution Wind. July 2023. Ørsted and Eversource Energy.

$170 million to the town of Brookhaven, N.Y., plus a $28 million payment-in-lieu-of-taxes. March 2023. Sunrise Wind. Developers Ørsted and Eversource Energy.

$1.25 million to Mystic Aquarium. November 2022. Developers Ørsted and Eversource Energy.

$29 million to the town of East Hampton, N.Y. January 2021. South Fork Wind. Developers Ørsted and Eversource Energy.

$16 million to the town of Nantucket, Mass., under a Good Neighbor Agreement finalized August 2020. Vineyard Wind. Developers Avangrid and Vineyard Offshore.

$16 million to the town of Barnstable, Mass., plus an additional $60,000 for each year the project is in operation beyond 25 years. October 2018. Vineyard Wind. Developers Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

$2.5 million to Block Island. 2016-17. As part of the Block Island Wind Farm proposal, expensive broadband fiber was negotiated to deliver high-speed internet to the town of New Shoreham, and the island replaced an old diesel-burning power station with wind energy. Developer Ørsted.

Some observers say the amount of money contractually promised by offshore wind developers to communities, fishers, and, in one unique case, to Mystic Aquarium, can’t cover the costs of damages the projects cause.

In fact, no one knows the degree of damage that may occur to the ocean or to coastal businesses and homes by the possible total of nine offshore projects proposed for a wind-energy lease areas south and southeast of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Rhode Island. At present, South Fork and Vineyard Wind are under construction; Revolution Wind has gotten all its permits; and SouthCoast and Sunrise Wind are working on obtaining contracts and permits.

Also, no one knows the future costs of those damages, although attempts have been made to guess at the costs, based on experiences elsewhere. For instance, defenders of offshore wind say some forms of fishing have been enhanced by the reef effect at the tiny, five-turbine array built off Block Island in 2016.

One notable stab at estimating the cost of offshore wind was made by Cultural Heritage Partners (CHP), a Virginia-based law firm that has or is now representing Nantucket, the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation (SELF), and the Preservation Society of Newport County in actions to wring concessions from developers or to restart the permitting process. CHP is representing the Preservation Society and SELF now in civil suits before the District Court for the District of Columbia.

The law firm’s website says: “Developer Ørsted’s own study found that 15% of visitors would not return to an Atlantic coastal community once turbines became visible.” And later: “A loss of 15% of Newport’s heritage tourism economy would cost the community an estimated $5.17 billion during the project lifespan.”

The study Ørsted commissioned, done by Bellwether Research & Consulting in 2020, pertained only to wind farms off the New Jersey coast.

The study included a survey of 914 registered voters in New Jersey. Of those, 70% said they vacation on the Jersey shore, and 85% of them said they would continue to vacation there even if they could see wind turbines 15 miles off the coast.

From the 136 New Jersey registered voters (15% of the survey) who said they would not return to the Jersey shore if wind turbines were visible, the law firm extrapolated a possible loss of 15% of the heritage tourism economy of Newport — a very different community — for a total estimated loss of $5.17 billion over the 20-to 30-year lifetime of the project.

Not mentioned in the law firm’s FAQ  page on the lawsuits is that the Bellwether study also said 73% of New Jersey voters said offshore wind would have a positive impact, and 74% to 77% of voters favored the Ocean Wind offshore wind farm 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City. (That project has since been canceled.)

Cultural Treasures

Leaving aside for a moment specific and measurable industries like commercial fishing, a large subset of the mitigations game is in cultural and historic properties. These range from big and highly visible things like the Bellevue Avenue mansions of Newport to unseen but real sites on the seafloor — called submerged lands — where, 15,000 years ago, ancestors of today’s Native American tribes lived, died, and possibly were buried. Ancient submerged landforms (ASLFs) on the seafloor can include identifiable rivers, lakes, and sacred places where early peoples may have lived. These are important to the deep history of local tribes. Cultural and historic sites under the water even include a category of shipwrecks.

Two massive and detailed documents pertaining to Revolution Wind were published in the past year and a half. They attempt to catalogue and quantify the impact of the wind farms on cultural and historic properties, under the terms of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The 70-page Cumulative Historic Resources Visual Effects Analysis of August 2022, commissioned by Revolution Wind, says 101 historic properties on coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island would be affected by views of the wind farms. This includes five National Historic Landmarks in Rhode Island (Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, Ocean Drive Historic District, Bellevue Avenue Historic District, The Breakers, and Marble House) and two traditional cultural properties (TCPs) in Massachusetts.

A word on TCPs: these are often — not always — associated with Native American society and can include prehistoric places now on the ocean floor that were dry land 15,000 years ago. Rhode Island’s historic preservation officer, Jeffrey Emidy, said TCPs “tend to be places that are more ephemeral,” not necessarily containing a physical structure, like a church. “They may be places where ceremonies took place, like viewing of the rising sun from Block Island or Aquinnah,” he said.

Law allows references to TCPs to be redacted in documents, likely as an acknowledgement of a regrettable history of people exploring and despoiling Native American sites, like burial grounds.

The visual effects analysis document notes that study of properties in the official Area of Potential Effects of wind farms — ranging from 13-28 miles of any historic property — was “based on a full buildout of the [Revolution Wind] project and all other reasonably foreseeable offshore wind project currently planned in the adjacent lease areas.”

The visual effects analysis does not name dollar figures for mitigation. That came later in a memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed in July, which named scores of historic properties and TCPs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and assigned money values to proposed improvement projects at the properties.

According to Attachment 5 of the agreement, “Revolution Wind would provide a maximum total of $11,621,000 to support avoidance, minimization, and mitigation of all adverse effects from the [wind farm] Project.” Each project is accompanied by a dollar figure.

Uses of the mitigation money proposed in the memo vary widely. For instance, $750,000 is designated for “mitigation of adverse effects” to several Massachusetts and Ocean State lighthouses. The single largest piece of the money, $4 million, is targeted to ancient submerged landforms. This could pay for geoarcheology, or drilling core samples in the seafloor to search for evidence of places where ancient peoples lived. Part of that money is targeted for “tribal nations youth university program support.” Some money is directed toward helping properties apply for the National Register of Historic Places.

Participants in the MOA included BOEM, three Indigenous tribes, historic preservation officers of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Revolution Wind. (A spokesperson from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe said no tribal representatives signed the memo.)

If some opponents mainly object to the sight of wind turbines from seaside properties, how is any amount of money going to help? Emidy, the Rhode Island historic preservation officer, said, “With wind farms, there is no direct mitigation. You can’t plant a bunch of trees all along the coast. You have to try to come up with a way to make up for the adverse effect on the historic properties.”

Regarding the future impact of the turbines on a tourism history community like Newport, Emidy said it might be feasible, say, to assert that 500,000 people visited Newport in a year before the turbines went up, and 400,000 people visited after the turbines appeared. But numbers like that — still in the future — might mean nothing.

“You are predicting and you are making an assumption” about the effect of the turbines on tourism, Emidy said. “That is really subjective.”

Two observers are not impressed — they are nearly scornful — of the terms of the MOA, claiming, above all, that the developer and BOEM never took the initial steps of thoroughly documenting all affected properties before they began devising their own solutions, with little consultation with property owners.

Those observers are Greg Werkheiser, a founding partner of the law firm Cultural Heritage Properties (CHP); and David Weeden, historic property officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

The lawsuits filed by CHP are asking for the permitting process to be re-done, because, they claim, the process by BOEM was rushed and it bypassed several important steps. They claim BOEM failed to consult with coastal communities early in the process, including private owners of historic properties. Second, they claim BOEM failed to analyze the cumulative impacts of all potential wind farms, but instead looked at each wind farm in isolation, which would soften the overall impact.

Third, the lawsuits claim that BOEM illegally allowed the projects to proceed without first mapping the properties that would be harmed, analyzing the degree of harm, and devising ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the harm.

“Only after completing those steps should BOEM decide whether to allow the project to proceed. In the case of offshore wind, BOEM has illegally reversed that order,” according to CHP.

Fourth and final, the lawsuits claim “BOEM has failed to ensure balance by allowing the risks of the harms of offshore industrialization to be borne by the impacted communities and Tribal Nations instead of requiring the developers … to mitigate the risks.”

Werkheiser said BOEM “put off negotiations of the Historic Preservation Treatment Plans until after the memorandum of agreement has been signed, meaning that the federal agency is saying it has resolved effects before it actually has. This is classic cart-before-the horse and is illegal and illogical.”

Werkheiser said many projects proposed in Attachment 5 of the MOA make no sense. “These proposals were developed by consultants hired by the [wind farm] developer, most of whom never stepped into the community,” he said. Even if some of the mitigation projects were on target, Werkheiser said, the amount of money offered is a fraction of what would be needed to correct actual harms.

In a 2022 letter to the consultant that prepared the “Cumulative Historic Resources Visual Effects Analysis,” CHP wrote “Revolution Wind’s tone-deaf proposals, such as a guidebook for historic property owners in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District … are essentially meaningless.” Later in the letter, CHP wrote, “Other projects proposed for Block Island … have been completed, are not needed, and are not proportionate to the magnitude of harm that Revolution Wind will cause.”

“We sued for an appropriate process,” Werkheiser said. “If done well, the question of value [of mitigation] will take care of itself.”

Regarding public involvement, a spokesperson said BOEM invites public comment at several stages of the development of a wind energy project. Opportunities include renewable energy task force meetings, meetings with specific stakeholder and ocean user groups, virtual and in-person public meetings, written comments during public comment periods, as announced by BOEM and via Federal Register notices. After lease issuance and receipt of Revolution Wind’s project plan, BOEM has held eight public meetings during two different stages of the project, the spokesperson said.

BOEM notifies the public about offshore wind projects through press releases and notes to stakeholders in national and local media; direct outreach to members of tribes, members of Congress, state government officials, non-governmental organizations, and other key stakeholders (e.g., commercial and recreational fishers, environmental organizations); email to anyone who has signed up for a BOEM mailing list; BOEM’s website and social media pages at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter/X; notices in the Federal Register; and legal notices in regional and local newspapers and other media outlets.

Weeden, historic preservation officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, agreed with Werkheiser that the analysis of impacts on cultural properties and mitigation plans was done hastily by BOEM.

“These things should be vetted fully; these projects are being rushed. I don’t know whether we are asking the right questions or getting the right answers,” Weeden said.

He believes the solution to disruption to the undersea lands of ancient Indians, which are culturally significant sites of the Wampanoag, is simple “avoidance,” the first of the trio of “avoid, minimize, and mitigate,” the stated objectives of the entire process.

Ancient submerged landforms, Weeden, said, are particular and identifiable locations, like stream beds, that could be avoided by placement of turbines. But he questions the value of simply drilling for and analyzing samples from the seabed. Core samples “are meant to learn a little more about submerged lands but they are so spaced out that it is no replacement for archeology.” He also noted that better understanding of these submerged lands and how people may have lived on them has scientific as well as cultural value; there may be burials within these sites.

Also, like Werkheiser and his clients, Weeden said actions and decisions by BOEM about mitigation planning were more or less shoved down the throat of the community. “They just dictated what they were going to do,” he said.

The MOA includes proposed expenditures of $4,028,000 from the total mitigation dollars “to resolve adverse effects at the nine ancient submerged landforms at the Outer Continental Shelf and in RI state waters … including pre-construction geoarchaeology, marine survey vessel tenders, GIS development, tribal participation, post-construction seafloor inspection, and including $350,000 for Tribal Nations youth university program support.”

Even so, Weeden said tribes need funding to help them fully understand and take part in the permitting process. “The federal agencies rely heavily on third-party consultants to keep up with the permitted schedule,” he said, “yet, the tribes are on their own fiscally. I am a department of one. There is a learning curve. These documents are hundreds of pages long. We need third party expertise when we ask our questions.”

Weeden also suggested that benefits to the community could make the wind farms “more palatable.” An example might be getting help with energy costs for the tribe, based in Mashpee on Cape Cod, a place of ever-rising land and housing prices. “It is getting hard to afford to live here, and we have been here for thousands of years,” Weeden said.

Weeden volunteered the opinion, “We have to do something to minimize the climate crisis we are in …  but energy has to come from somewhere. There is no such thing as clean energy or green energy. It is a tradeoff of evils.”