OffShore Wind & Protecting California's Coastline & Vital Ecosystems- VX2022 Panel Excerpt

Christine Harada

At the end of June, the US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration designated offshore wind vessels as Vessels of National Interest, making them eligible for financial support and facilitating more offshore wind construction. One of the many expert panels at VX2022 focused on the future of offshore wind in California. Included on the panel were Executive Director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, Christine Harada (pictured), California Deputy Secretary for Oceans & Coastal Policy and Executive Director  of the Ocean Protection Council, Mark Gold,  Ocean Wind’s Head of Offshore Wind Business Development -West, Tyler Studds, Better World Group’s Sr. Policy Director Sarah K. Friedman and moderated by San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Warner Chabot. During this discussion, the panelists share their thoughts on the promise of offshore wind, the challenges that lie ahead, and some potential solutions to overcome the latter.

Warner Chabot: The topic today is offshore wind. It's surely coming to California. The last hurdle was cleared when the Coastal Commission approved a consistency determination for two lease sales off of Humboldt County and San Luis Obispo County that will occur, if all goes well, sometime this fall.

Tyler, from your experience as wind industry developer, can you speak to the issues raised by the lease application and outline the challenges that the industry is facing and the likely benefits that you think offshore wind promises to bring to California?

Tyler Studds: The perspective that I'll share is informed by my work as a developer and in the past working for a state agency. I don’t want to speak on behalf of an industry where we have a lot of diverse opinions, but I'm confident in saying what I do share today reflects the industry as a whole.

With offshore wind, we have a generational opportunity to develop a new industry that can both provide clean energy at scale, that helps California meet SB 100 clean energy goals, and also drive jobs and economic development. The resource here in California is on par with some of the best performing sites in Europe, but it's not just the quantity, but also the quality of the resource. Offshore wind peaks late in the afternoon when the solar resources are waning and California peak demand is rising. It helps balance that solar and provide a portfolio of clean energy for California. In terms of jobs and economic development, what we're talking about is long term jobs building offshore wind in the ports, but also long term jobs maintaining offshore wind. Many of these in underrepresented areas or underserved communities, particularly like Humboldt County.

We undertake this conversation within the context of a global climate crisis. With looking at a system in California, we need to bring new resources online as quickly as possible. The question becomes, how do we move fast? Considering also that this is an established technology in an environment where it has not previously been built, which is extremely valuable and has a lot of existing ocean users, including shipping and commercial fishing. The question then becomes, how do we move fast and get it right?

From offshore wind, first and foremost, we as an industry are committed to being good stewards of the environment. We are committed to doing good science, funding good science, and science-based decision making. Perhaps most important of all, we're really committed to working very closely with all affected communities and stakeholders. That includes indigenous tribes and commercial fishing. Anybody who's seen the permitting matrix of offshore wind knows that we exist inside of a very big tent. By nature, we are collaborative. We know that that's something we need to do to get it right.

When we think about what leadership we need from the state, I say continued leadership. The state so far has been phenomenal. In particular, in response to Assembly Bill 525, which directs state agencies to develop a strategic plan for offshore wind, they really put an enormous amount of work together. Mark's agency has funded some great research, which is obviously critical to identifying critical habitats and species and data.

Additionally, under AB 525, the state is required to set a target for offshore wind. We urge the state to commit to goals of five gigawatts by 2030 and 20 gigawatts by 2045. That's really to help drive and direct the state and the industry to put in place what's necessary to drive clean energy and jobs. Number two is to invest and continue investing in ports planning. These are the fundamental locations at which offshore wind will be constructed and where jobs will be created. In an ideal situation, we see an interconnected network of ports up and down the coast that can help support that.

Lastly, we look to the state to do what it can to drive procurement of all resources, including offshore wind sooner than would otherwise happen.

Certainly challenges will remain. What offshore wind has shown is that we will bring resources to meet engineering challenges, development challenges, and put in place investments to work with communities and different groups sufficiently to bring this forward. It's the idea of if you build it, they will come flipped, which is if you commit to it, we will bring the resources and meet those targets in a manner that is avoids, minimizes, and mitigates potential impacts to the greatest extent possible.

Warner Chabot: Mark, from the state's perspective, could you speak to the policy issues that the state had in dealing with the approval and permitting of offshore?

Mark Gold: First, I want to take everyone a half a step back from Tyler. For anyone who's ever dealt with the Coastal Commission, think about how this is the biggest construction project off California’s coast, maybe in our state's history, and it went from went from cradle to approval  on a conditional approval of a consistency determination in less than a year. That's how all-in everybody at the state is to try to make floating offshore wind happen quickly. That's just beyond extraordinary. I can't get past the fact that we were able to do that. The big agencies pulled an incredible amount of information together. We had to do it because BOEM had their deadline of making their final decisions on the lease sale areas by September-October. Coastal Commission did everything on time.

Also, State Lands Commission is going to be much more important on the port issues. One of the things that's very challenging  right now is that there's no port ready for this.  If anyone's been up to Humboldt, you basically have to build a whole new port, which they're really excited about doing, but they can't deal with any of this right now. To think that they're going to have the lease sale and everything built and operating in seven and a half years is a tremendous challenge. I don't worry about the floating offshore wind getting out there that quickly; I worry about the whole infrastructure and building that out in such a quick period of time. The state, the locals, and the feds will all have to pull together to make this happen quickly.  On the Central Coast, this is an even greater challenge.  There is no current front runner. We are all going to see which port wins that competition to be the lead on the central coast for OSW .

Obviously, Coastal Commission played a tremendous role here, and the fact that both of these CDs got approved unanimously was also extraordinary. The fact that the environmental NGO community came along and supported the CDs was wonderful as wel . Why you have all the natural resource agencies in lockstep with the Energy Commission is because there's been this general consensus amongst all of us that we really want to make sure California is moving forward, but we're going to do it in the most sustainable way possible. We're talking about floating offshore wind, 20-plus miles offshore. There's only 11 floating offshore wind turbines in the entire world. One of the things that we're having to deal with is, what are the impacts there? Usually, you want to know all the impacts ahead of time, but we don't know what the impacts are. We ended up in a situation where we're doing the best we can using the latest science, but we are relying a great deal on modeling as we continue to gather more and better data.

We're going to need the most kick-ass monitoring program that you've ever seen. It's going to have to be adaptive management taken to the next level, making sure that we're minimizing our impacts to marine life, fisheries, and cultural resources, and benefiting communities, especially underserved communities.

The next step is, as the lease sales get approved and after probably another couple years of information gathering, BOEM  will start calling for wind development applications and the state and feds will review the proposals which will include infrastructure investments, mitigation, community benefits programs, and more. We have a lot of data collection, fact finding, and planning to do until then.

Warner Chabot: Sarah, your firm worked with the Humboldt Area Foundation to build up a community strategy to ensure that offshore wind contributes to long term sustainability and maximum community benefits. Could you tell us more about that?

Sarah Friedman: Our client is the Humboldt Area Foundation's CORE Hub that's focused on building climate resiliency in the region. They brought us on their first project, figuring out how to develop offshore wind in a way that created equity and environmental benefits in the region. These big natural resource wins have led to big harms for the communities, particularly the tribes.

How do we develop this in a way that's equitable, and instead of harming underrepresented communities and tribes, provides benefits? One of the things they were also thinking about is there's going to be offshore wind and a big port development. Also, the region as a whole is experiencing a huge housing boom and associated, people are being pushed out of their homes. They wanted to figure out how to do this in a way that would build infrastructure on the ground in communities so that they basically knew how to go through a community benefits process and see what a community benefits agreement would look like for this development and future development that would come down through the pipeline.

Where we are in that process is we've conducted about 50 interviews of folks asking what kind of needs they see for the community. The benefits identified so far have fallen into a few different buckets. Environmental benefits, protections, and adaptive management. This means avoiding impacts to fisheries, birds, marine mammals, and ensuring cultural benefits to tribes, like targeted tribal hires, education programs, and creating a stable local job force and the education to match that. Then, there’s also what we would call the transformative bucket. That is things like land return and honor tax to the  tribe whose ancestral lands are Humboldt Bay. Kinds of the things that will kind of change the dynamic in the region.

Warner Chabot: My basic sense is that any activity that occurs in the Coastal Zone has more laws stacked up on top of each other, more interest groups engaged in that issue than anywhere else. The issue of permitting in great many of the environmental policy arenas, the stack of environmental laws at the state and federal level have caused activities to move very slowly. We find ourselves in a point in history where we have to ask how are we going to accelerate permitting to deal with both protecting the environment and to do the right thing for alternative energy development and coastal protection. Christine, give us an overview of the federal permitting process and the role that your council is engaged in. What do you see as the big challenges or hurdles going forward, knowing that we have a lease sale coming up this fall?

Christine Harada: The Federal Permit Improvement Steering Council was stood up in December 2015, building on a lot of the lessons that we learned very painfully during the Obama administration. It's a very bipartisan effort born out of nearly 20 years’ worth of bipartisan efforts, usually in the form of executive actions, like presidential memoranda and executive orders. We were finally codified into law and  made permanent in November of 2021 with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Federal agencies are frequently opaque. Our role is to learn to help undo a lot of that opaqueness. Similarly, federal agencies are also very reluctant to impose its will upon another agency. First of all, it's not within their authority, but secondly, we’re sister agencies, and we need each other in order to be able to collaborate and coordinate. We are an independent agency, and the council itself is staffed by the 13 deputy secretaries or equivalent of the 13 federal agencies that do permitting, so think Army Corps, DOD, EPA, DOE, etc. We have the permitters; we also have the environmental policymakers like the Environmental Advisor to the President and the budget person within the White House. We've got the right set of folks within the room to be able to make those kinds of decisions.

Our authorities also include a lot of really unique things in that we have a fee-collecting authority. We also have a funding transfer authority, so that we're able to transfer funds to federal agencies, but also now to state, local, and tribal nations in support of the work as it pertains to a project in our program. For example, for offshore wind, if a tribal nation needs additional support because they are overwhelmed with all the environmental reviews, the Historical Preservation Act reviews, etc., we're able to help transfer funds to that tribal nation so that we can help them get  a consultant or think through how we want to do capacity building. Our statute and our authorities also enable us to coordinate with state agencies as well. That's something I'm looking forward to getting into with the state of California and the respective agencies.

Audience Question: This is one area where the East Coast is ahead of us a little bit. There's a very limited number of actual facilities that are operating on the East Coast after years and years of planning and regulatory work. What lessons can we learn from that in California?

Audience Question: Adding onto that question, can we also use lessons learned from the offshore drilling community? They seem to be extremely successful at being in communities quite effectively, even despite clearly protesters.

Christine Harada: Certainly with respect to Cape and Vineyard, I know that the previous administration was not a fan at all of offshore wind. In fact, they paused a lot of projects and analysis. They did multiple NEPA analyses, even though it wasn't absolutely necessary, to slow roll them. Within this administration, you've probably seen a big difference in the acceleration in the number of projects.

To your question around lessons learned from offshore drilling, it is my observation that it is technically a very different beast. With offshore drilling, there are now hundreds of platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and we're talking about thousands of turbines that dramatically impact the habitat. The good folks at NOAA are very much wrapping their head around how are they going to deal with that.

It's also been my observation that the offshore drilling folks have got their lobbying and litigation game extremely down. They are very focused with their lobbying. One of my druthers as a climate person is that I would very much like to see offshore wind get a lot more aggressive and engaged on that front. They certainly do their best right now with folks like American Clean Power, but personally, I think that they need to bulk that up.

Mark Gold: One of the things that is very interesting is that the environmental NGOs that have spent their whole careers opposing offshore oil have been supportive so far, which changes the dialogue so dramatically when you have the Environmental Defense Center and others saying wind makes sense in this situation. People like the NRDC are saying if we do this right, this is a good thing to do. That changes the dynamic dramatically.

Audience Question: This is a little bit of a lightning round. If you had to pick one issue that you think is likely to be the biggest controversy, roadblock, or challenge going forward, what do you think it would be?

Sarah Friedman: I think those are three different things. My fear is about the impacts to the marine environment. We're moving fast at a scale where we don't know enough. We've had good data, but are we going to put the mechanisms in place around good adaptive management and monitoring and the ability to take actions based on that data as it's collected? I think there's more work to be done.

Tyler Studds: Developing necessary port infrastructure to support offshore wind installation and development of a local supply chain. Also, getting to yes with commercial fishing. I think it's possible, but it's a challenge

Mark Gold: Determining the impacts of development and developing appropriate mitigation for those impacts is going to be a tremendous challenge. I would say port development is the other one I’m really concerned about.

Christine Harada: Because it's my day job, the interaction and collaboration between federal and state agency permitting. Getting it done to make sure that we're addressing all of these issues in the process.

“For anyone who's ever dealt with the Coastal Commission, think about how this is the biggest construction project off California’s coast, maybe in our state's history, and it went from went from cradle to approval on a conditional approval of a consistency determination in less than a year. That's how all-in everybody at the state is to try to make floating offshore wind happen quickly. That's just beyond extraordinary."—Mark Gold