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Decision Awaited on Offshore Wind Energy Sites
Latest development: The deadline for public comment on the Wind Energy Areas within which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is past. Now we await the agency’s response to feedback.
On Aug. 15, BOEM announced the dimensions of two draft Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) off the coast of Oregon and opened a 60-day public review and comment period on those WEAs. The draft WEAs cover approximately 219,568 acres offshore southern Oregon with their closest points ranging from approximately 18 – 32 miles off the coast. A map of the draft WEAs can be found on Oregon state activities page. BOEM plunged ahead despite calls from the state’s political leaders, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, and conservation groups including Oregon Shores, for a suspension of the leasing process until more can be known about potential impacts to the West Coast’s marine ecosystems.
BOEM’s actions have roused the concern of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. They responded to the announcement concerning the draft WEA’s:
“The Tribe supports any green economic development project that follows the law and does not harm local fishing jobs, our environment, or Tribal cultural resources. We cannot support offshore wind development until we are provided assurance that it will do good and not harm the Tribe, its members, and the greater community,” said Tribal Council Chair Brad Kneaper. “Last year, the Tribal Council called upon BOEM to engage in meaningful government-to government consultation with the Tribe and to take action to ensure that offshore wind energy development in any area of interest to the Tribe avoids or mitigates impacts to Tribal cultural resources to the satisfaction of the Tribe. We are not satisfied that the WEAs will do that.”
In multiple communications with BOEM, the Tribe raised a number of concerns to BOEM about wind energy development. These comments include a request that important, cultural viewsheds be excluded from the WEAs and that wind development avoid areas critical to resident and migratory species, including important areas for fishing.
More on this soon. Meawhile, here is the backstory:
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has Oregon in its sights for development of wind energy turbines in federal waters off our shores. In conjunction with the state’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, BOEM planners have been assessing Oregon’s wind energy potential.
Early last year, BOEM announced “call areas” within which leases to would-be wind developers would be offered. These areas comprise about 1,800 square miles of the ocean. Four multinational corporations bid for leases on these areas. BOEM judged these applicants to be qualified, and is now studying the call areas to determine “Wind Energy Areas (WEAs)” within them most suitable for siting of wind turbines. The next opportunity for public involvement will come after BOEM identifies the WEAs it is proposing to lease sometime later in 2023.
Along with allied conservation groups, Oregon Shores drafted and submitted a joint comment from 20 conservation groups (this large file contains many maps and may take a moment to load in your web browser). We asked, among other things, for much more thorough studies of potential impacts to habitat areas and wildlife; consideration of moving call areas further offshore (the greatest potential for conflict with wildlife appears to be on the eastern side of the currently designated areas); and taking into account impacts on land as cables cross the shore, new transmission infrastructure is built, and port facilities are developed to build, transport, and service offshore wind turbines. Since wind energy development affects the California Current Marine Ecosystem, shared with Washington and California, we asked that BOEM take a step back and conduct a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study (PEIS) on the potential cumulative impacts of all proposed call areas on the West Coast.
Conservationists have not been alone in raising the alarm. The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to ask BOEM to start the process over, taking more time to consider resource impacts at the front end of the process. And on June 9, Oregon’s governor, both U.S. senators, and two congresspeople sent BOEM a letter, asking the agency to pause the process long enough to let the new administration of Gov. Tina Kotek get up to speed on the potential issues. The politicians wrote “The BOEM process has created significant friction with coastal communities, the fishing industry, and Tribal governments. Many valid questions and concerns remain about floating
offshore wind. These must be addressed transparently before we can support proceeding further towards any substantial development decisions on the Oregon coast.”
Perhaps because the agency has received so much pushback from conservationists and communities around the nation’s coasts, BOEM has been conducting a review of its leasing process. Here are Oregon Shores comments to BOEM. Whether any change resulting from this rule review will affect the Oregon leasing program is unknown.
The two call areas off Oregon’s coast are
- Coos Bay Call Area: The boundary of the Coos Bay Call Area begins 13.8 miles offshore Charleston, Oregon, and extends to about 65 miles offshore. The eastern boundary water depth ranges from about 394 to 722 feet (120 to 220 meters). The area is about 67 miles in length from north to south and about 41 miles in width from east to west. The entire area is approximately 872,854 acres (1,364 square miles).
- Brookings Call Area: The boundary of the Brookings Call area begins 13.8 miles offshore Gold Beach and Brookings, Oregon, and extends to about 46 miles offshore. The eastern boundary water depth ranges from about 410 to 1,115 feet (125 to 340 meters). The area is about 46 miles in length from north to south and about 22 miles in width from east to west. The entire area is approximately 286,444 acres (448 square miles).
(Note: The above descriptions are for the full “call areas”–the Wind Energy Areas selected by BOEM are smaller. The Coos Bay WEA in particular is just the northwest corner of the original call areas.)
Oregon Shores previously joined a host of conservation group in urging that detailed studies and a PEIS be done before call areas, if any, were identified. This was to no avail, although a third potential call area, off Bandon, was pulled from consideration when its major, very likely environmental impacts were pointed out.
At this stage, it isn’t inevitable that wind energy turbines will appear in the call areas. Companies leasing call areas will conduct further studies and, if satisfied that sufficient wind energy can be produced there, will produce proposals for specific sites for consideration by BOEM. There will be environmental studies of these proposals, and the public will have a chance to weigh in at that point. Still, there is considerable momentum driving us toward a new seascape featuring hundreds of massive wind turbines.
At this point it is uncertain how vast the impact could be. The Oregon Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a Floating Wind Energy Study which assesses the potential benefits and impacts to Oregon. (“Floating” refers to the fact that the waters where the turbines would be located are too deep to anchor them on the bottom; rather, the turbines will be on floating platforms tethered to the seafloor.) In September, DOE will report its results to the Oregon legislature, which has set a goal of 3 gigawatts to be produced off Oregon’s shore. There are serious questions about whether the existing transmission infrastructure could handle this much power. Yet some industry promoters are talking about developing capacity for as much as 20 gigawatts, which would turn the ocean into a major industrial zone.
Those who love Oregon’s coast and ocean will have mixed feelings about the situation. Wind is a renewable energy source, which can play a role in weaning society from fossil fuels and abating global warming. Climate change is already affecting the ocean and marine species in many ways, and will increasingly harm birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife.
On the other hand, an ocean dotted with huge turbines could have as-yet-unknown but potentially major impacts to the ocean and its inhabitants. Wind turbines have already been developed that stand 853 feet tall, with a blade sweep of 722 feet; technology is under development that would allow for turbines 1,500 feet in height. (The Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall.) The potential to affect the migratory pathways of birds and marine mammals, the disturbance to seafloor habitats, the possible effects of powerful electrical currents being conducted through the water, and the likely interference with fisheries all pose important questions. Some portions of the call areas are particular “hot spots” for various species. There is a possibility that industrial structures in the ocean this large and numerous could actually damp down the upwelling that makes the California Current so abundant for wildlife.
Another set of worrisome questions involve what happens onshore. Cable lines crossing the intertidal and beach and connecting to switching stations and transmission lines on land could create impacts. Perhaps a greater concern is what might take place in the Coos Bay estuary. (The offshore areas that apparently have the greatest potential for wind energy lie off southern Oregon and far northern California. Also, a recent industry study indicated that the Port of Coos Bay was the only one in Oregon that could handle the industrial side of wind energy.) Development of floating wind will involve assembly of these massive industrial structures, transporting them offshore, and ongoing maintenance and repair. The dredging and industrial activity this would require could degrade estuarine ecosystems as much as the now-abandoned Jordan Cove LNG facility we fought so hard to block.
Oregon Shores will continue working with other conservation groups to demand independent scientific review; serious consideration given to the value of the marine and estuarine resources that could be impacted; a coastwide framework for considering cumulative impacts; careful monitoring; and mitigation for the impacts of any offshore wind development that does occur.
For information about Oregon Shores’ position and the work we are doing to demand thorough advance studies before floating offshore wind development is considered, contact Phillip Johnson, conservation director, at (503) 754-9303, firstname.lastname@example.org.