There is little doubt that floating offshore wind farms are coming to the southern Oregon coast. The region’s small, ocean-reliant communities are worried about potential damage to sea habitat and the loss of fishing grounds.
In February, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) designated 2,100 square miles of federal water for potential development of floating offshore wind as part of the Biden administration’s goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. On the day of the announcements regional stakeholders started pushing back, asking why BOEM would consider placing hundreds of 980-foot-high wind turbines in a globally productive ecosystem.
On April 7, in a rare display of unity, 27 conservation groups and fishing organizations wrote BOEM asserting, “Siting of wind energy facilities is the single most important decision that will be made for wind development off Oregon’s Coast.”
The following week, Nick Edwards, a southern Oregon fisherman, addressed Oregon’s U.S. Senator Ron Wyden on behalf of Oregon’s seafood industry during a virtual Town Hall meeting.
Senator, I’ve been a commercial fisherman for 43 years and a board member of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust in Portland for seven. If there ever was a fisherman involved with ocean renewable energy, I would be that person.
I’m here to tell you the current BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Management) process for siting offshore wind in Oregon waters is extremely flawed. [In January] Governor [Kate] Brown sent a letter to BOEM providing a list of parameters to develop offshore wind in Oregon. She stated, ‘This is an opportune time to move these Wind Energy Areas offshore to 1300 meters (4265 feet) in depth and beyond. This would essentially protect the NW upwellings providing one of the most sustainable ecosystems in the world.’ Instead, BOEM is doing the opposite.
Senator Wyden, for the sake of our ocean resources, are you willing to sit down with a small advisory group to discuss these important issues with sighting OSW (offshore wind) in Oregon waters?”
Edwards hasn’t heard from Senator Wyden’s office (as of May 10).
Representatives of the fishing industry, environmental groups, and civic organizations have stated that offshore wind-energy production should be sited in waters deeper than 1,300 meters to protect the region’s coastal upwelling, which is vital to southern Oregon’s sea habitat.
Susan Chambers, deputy director of West Coast Seafood Processors Association, stated in an interview with me:
It’s infuriating. Yes, we need to transfer away from fossil fuels to clean energy, but I’m not sure if anyone has thought through the damages this technology could do to our oceans. Everyone has been full steam ahead. Until now. We have no bargaining power except to keep pushing in the media, pushing to our congressmen, to our local legislators, to our governor. We just keep pushing.
Like Edwards and Chambers, Oregon State University Professor Flaxen Conway, who directs the Marine Resource Management questioned BOEM’s Oregon process.
Outreach and engagement are not synonyms; they are two different things. Having a public meeting telling communities a bunch of information and then giving them 10 minutes for a ‘public comment period’ is outreach, not engagement. Many folks watching this process would say it’s moving really fast and hasn’t allowed them to truly provide input, feel heard, and feel confident that their input will be considered or used in decision making. Is this the best way possible? Addressing communities’ concerns and engaging them in solution making to address climate change, energy security, and food security is essential. I’m not sure that’s what’s happening now.
On May 4th, two state legislators, Representatives David Brock Smith and Boomer Wright responded to public concerns by hosting a “listening session.” The event was produced in partnership with three southern Oregon towns, two regional ports, and two tribal governments. Nearly 200 people attended to share opinions, concerns, and questions.
Ann Vileisis, president of Kalmiopsis Audubon Society, read a statement to the legislators and attendees:
Oregon’s offshore waters are part of one of only four major eastern boundary upwelling ecosystems in the world. They account for only 1% of the world’s ocean area, but account for 20% of the world’s ocean fish harvest. The BOEM [the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] process does not really allow for an adequate, realistic, and transparent analysis of cumulative impacts until very late in the game, after the wind energy companies are already heavily invested.
After the listening session, Melissa Cribbins, a Coos County commissioner, shared her concerns:
Small economically strapped rural communities are often exploited due to poverty. My worry is that BOEM will cherry pick the communities that are the least sophisticated and least able to negotiate one of these agreements, because they won’t know what they need to ask for.
We must keep knocking on doors and partner with organizations who can help us bring our issues to the table since we don’t have the population base to do it alone. It’s critical though, that we couch our issues as global issues. We need to demonstrate what’s happening in Coos County is a problem for the rest of the state and America generally. …
If we can compile concerns of the community and send a letter signed by all of our districts, tribes, and ports … especially considering how highly unusual it is for environmental and fishing groups to come together – If we can say, we, the South Coast, are concerned about these things, that could carry a lot of weight.
I reached out to Governor kate Brown, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio to get comments and asked for their comments on specific plans to address community and fishing-industry concerns.
The governor’s deputy communications director, Charles Boyle, emailed me this statement:
We are hopeful that BOEM will consider this depth to reduce the conflicts between ocean users, if development areas on the deep slope or abyssal plain were considered in future planning efforts. The state is committed to the identification of areas within the call areas that would optimize the production of wind energy, but also recognize that there are challenges to minimizing the impacts to existing communities.
U.S. Senator Wyden’s digital strategy director, Emily Zahnle-Hostetler, emailed the following statement:
Senator Wyden is in agreement that “avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating” the impacts to natural resources must be a top priority. Our team is still digging into this issue and speaking with relevant groups and agencies to explore the best ways to ensure we meet those goals. Happy to chat more in the future as things develop, just keep us posted on how we can be helpful.
U.S. Representative DeFazio, who is leaving office at the end of the term, sent a statement via his communications director, King Green:
I strongly support the use of renewable energy alternatives like wind, solar, wave, and thermal energy, but the installation of these alternatives cannot be to the detriment of vitally important fisheries, wildlife habitat, marine and land areas, and endangered marine species.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has a sad history of ignoring the most immediate stakeholders on this topic, notably the fishermen. They have failed to give all stakeholders timely notification around policy decisions and have held critical hearings on this issue outside of the coast. I have raised my concerns with BOEM so that they understand that inclusion of these stakeholders is a top priority moving forward. I will continue to closely monitor this issue as it develops.
U.S. Senator Merkley’s office had not responded as of Wednesday, May 18.
With only months to go before BOEM officially names the final offshore wind energy areas, Chambers with the West Coast Seafood Processors Association said she and others would continue to work on the issue.
“We don’t have much trust in BOEM,” she told me. “All we can do is keep trying to get our voices heard to protect the fishing industries and the sea.”