Vineyard Wind’s request for “a temporary pause” in the federal review of its 800-megawatt offshore wind energy project triggered an announcement from the  Department of Interior that it must restart its entire permit application process.

In a flurry of activity by the outgoing Trump administration, the head of the Interior Department’s legal staff, solicitor Daniel H. Jorjani on Tuesday issued new guidance stressing that if Interior Secretary David Bernhardt “determines that either fishing or vessel transit constitute ‘reasonable uses…of the exclusive economic zone, the high seas and the territorial sea,’ the Secretary has a duty to prevent interference with that use.”

The 16-page memo asserts the secretary of Interior should determine “what is unreasonable” interference from offshore wind turbines “based on the perspective of the fishing user.” It’s a victory for commercial fishing advocates including the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance and Fisheries Survival Fund, who went directly to Bernhardt in July with complaints their concerns are not adequately addressed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy.

The agency had been poised to issue a record of decision Jan. 15 that would allow Vineyard Wind to proceed toward construction – a timeline that now could stretch out another 18 months, unless a Biden administration very supportive of wind energy steps in.

Even if the next administration reverses course, recent events are a big win for fishermen, said Annie Hawkins, executive director of RODA.

Even if Biden were to issue an executive order on Vineyard Wind “to get in back in the queue,” the developers at minimum would need to republish their revised plan for review and comment under the National Environmental Policy Act, said Hawkins.

The new legal guidance could likewise be amended by new lawyers, “but that’s still on the record” and will keep fishermen’s concerns elevated in future review of Vineyard Wind and other offshore wind projects, she said.

“I do think the memo fundamentally changes the balance of power,” said Hawkins.

Outwardly developers of the lease off southern New England are expressing confidence the process will move forward.

“We have received acknowledgement from BOEM of the temporary withdrawal of our COP, as we requested, and we look forward to working together again after we notify the agency to resume its review” of a revised construction and operations plan, according to a statement from Vineyard Wind.

“Over the past three years, this project has been through an extremely rigorous process and we believe the agency can promptly restart the process.  As we’ve said at the time we made this initial decision, a short delay now still allows us to deliver the project on the appropriate timeline, with financial close in the second half of 2021 and power coming onto the grid in 2023.

“We continue to progress on our due diligence efforts and we intend to notify the BOEM in several weeks when it can resume and complete its review of the COP.”

A Dec. 1 letter from Vineyard Wind to BOEM notified the agency the developers were withdrawing their original construction and operations plan, which called for using 84 MHI Vestas 9.5 MW turbines for the first phase of the project. Vineyard Wind, a joint venture between Copenhagen Infrastructure Projects and Avangrid Renewables, would ultimately spend $2.8 billion plan to build the two-phase  800-megawatt wind farm in federal waters about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Vineyard Wind said in November it would switch to the larger GE Haliade-X design producing 12 MW to 13 MW, part of the international trend toward bigger, more efficient generators.

That change could reduce the first phase layout to 62 turbine towers, potentially mitigating some concerns and conflicts raised by the New England commercial fishing industry.

The reaction from the Trump administration, first reported Dec. 13 by Bloomberg, was a Dec. 11 notification that Vineyard Wind could not simply restart its permit process but would need to submit a new application.

In a statement conveyed by BOEM’s media office Dec. 14, the agency laid out its position. A final ruling from the Department of Interior is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register Dec. 16.

“BOEM is not actively reviewing Vineyard Wind’s application right now.  Because the Construction and Operations Plan has been withdrawn from review, there is no longer a proposal for a major federal action awaiting technical and environmental review, nor is there a decision pending before BOEM.

“Vineyard Wind is welcome to submit a new Construction and Operations Plan, at which time BOEM will begin an appropriate environmental and technical review.”

However, the Interior notice in the Register takes a hard line.

“Since the COP has been withdrawn from review and decision-making, there is no longer a proposal for a major federal action awaiting technical and environmental review, nor is there a decision pending before BOEM. Thus, in light of Vineyard Wind’s letter dated December 1, 2020, this notice advises the public that the preparation and completion of an EIS is no longer necessary, and the process is hereby terminated.”

For their part, Vineyard Wind officials continued to express optimism.

Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Pedersen told E&E News he does not think the permit process will need to start from scratch:

"We feel that all of these studies and all of the reviews that have been done on the project are still there. And therefore, we feel like that a reintroduction of the project in front of the agency can be completed in a relatively short period of time."

This turn comes after an already long process where BOEM prepared an environmental impact statement, readied in summer 2019, only to have it shot down after the National Marine Fisheries Service Greater Atlantic regional office refused to sign off on it. Expressing the concerns of its scientists and the commercial fishing industry, NMFS officials said the analysis was incomplete.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called for a new review, including a study of the potential cumulative impacts of up to 15 offshore wind turbine arrays proposed off the East Coast. That study uncovered no major new issues, and BOEM had scheduled a decision to be published Dec. 11, with a final record of decision Jan. 15 – five days before the Biden administration would be sworn in.

The request from Vineyard Wind for more time to change its construction and operations plan for the bigger GE turbines brought speculation, dismissed by Vineyard Wind, that the company was buying time to push the final permitting decision into the first days of a Biden administration. But the net effect is likely to do just that, moving it into a much more favorable political climate.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.