New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith is outraged by the ever-increasing whale death toll associated with rapidly increasing offshore wind development. He has introduced a much-needed bill calling for an investigation into the impact assessment practices of the federal agencies that authorize and oversee OSW.
His invoice – HR 1056 – is here.
Smith’s Bill is short but expansive. It requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — commonly known as the Congressional Watchdog — to investigate the adequacy of the federal environmental assessment process for “offshore wind projects, including impacts on whales, other marine mammals, commercial and recreational fisheries, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, shipping, tourism.” and the sustainability of coastal beaches and bays.”
As Smith’s press release puts it, “As part of a court press for answers, my legislation will examine the degree of transparency by federal agencies that gave the green light to this aggressive offshore wind development and determine how much scrutiny was performed in the review environmental and marine safety of this project, particularly given its unprecedented size and scope.”
In the crosshairs are the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which is conducting the environmental impact assessments, and NOAA Fisheries, which is tasked with protecting the whales and other marine life.
I have reported in previous articles at least three glaring procedural gaps in impact assessment, as follows. Hopefully GAO will flag them.
First, BOEM did not conduct an environmental impact assessment for the OSW lease program or for any of the many specific leases it granted. It was certain that extensive development activities would take place, particularly the surveying of sonar locations that are now being linked to increasing cetacean mortality.
Second, NOAA fisheries did not conduct environmental impact assessments when approving the massive and potentially deadly nuisance to large numbers of whales and other marine mammals. Each sonar survey and building permit actually estimates the number of creatures in each species that are likely to be adversely affected. The possible impact of these effects, particularly panic, stress and/or numbness, has never been evaluated.
Third, BOEM’s previous environmental impact assessments for these massive OSW projects are incredibly inadequate. For example, they consistently ignore the effects of operating noise. It also doesn’t take into account the cumulative impact of the thousands of monster wind turbines now in the permitting pipeline.
The assessment requirements of the Federal Environmental Policy Act are based on what is “reasonably probable”. If a regulatory action is likely to have an impact on the environment, that impact must be assessed. The impacts to be assessed are those that are reasonably likely to occur. It’s a two-tier standard.
It is clear that leasing land for offshore wind energy development is likely to result in such development, which certainly comes with quite likely environmental impacts. Therefore, an assessment of these effects should have been made prior to leasing.
It is also evident that permitting noise pollution to thousands of whales and other marine mammals is likely to adversely affect them, so these impacts should be assessed prior to permitting. This applies to sonar survey noise, construction noise (particularly piling noise) and operational noise.
In addition, NEPA is clear that when multi-agency actions are being considered as part of an overall program such as offshore wind development, the cumulative impact of those actions must also be assessed. For example, last year NOAA Fisheries issued 12 separate permits for the harassment of large numbers of whales and other marine mammals.
GAO is typically scrupulously apolitical when it comes to investigating or evaluating agency programs. The study Smith is proposing is badly needed, so let’s hope his bill becomes law.
Stay tuned to CFACT as this story unfolds.
David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy. See http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html for origins. For over 100 previous articles on CFACT see http://www.cfact.org/author/david-wojick-ph-d/ Available for confidential research and consultation.