A long-anticipated Bureau of Ocean Energy Management study of the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind offshore energy project – broadened to examine potential impacts of similar projects from Maine to Georgia – has been released for a 45-day public comment period.

The draft supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) acknowledges Vineyard Wind and other planned wind turbine arrays will have major impacts on the commercial fishing industry. That aspect was flagged as a failing of an earlier impact statement, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic regional fisheries office refused to sign off on BOEM’s study.

“Our goal is that all users can successfully coexist,” BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said Thursday during the International Partnering Forum, an online event held by the Business Network for Offshore Wind.

Cruickshank, whose agency is viewed skeptically by many in the fishing industry, stressed BOEM recognizes fishing as a crucial maritime industry and is reaching out to commercial and recreational sectors.

With the Covid-19 pandemic limiting public gatherings, BOEM began planning early on for alternatives to public hearings on the Vineyard Wind supplemental EIS. The process now includes five live virtual meetings from June 26 to July 9 for public comments and questions.

After gathering public comment, the agency will consider the information in working toward a final EIS – a crucial step not only for Vineyard Wind, but for the entire future U.S. offshore wind industry, where shipbuilders, suppliers, maritime and labor interests are all waiting for a signal to proceed with new investment. That decision is scheduled to be completed in December.

Wind energy advocates hailed the arrival of the draft supplemental EIS.

"Tier 1 suppliers will invest in the U.S. with cash resources currently sitting on the sidelines waiting for the green light from BOEM," said Liz Burdock, president and CEO of the Business Network for Offshore Wind. "The final approval of the supplemental EIS this fall will have a domino effect leading to the construction of 9,000 MW by the end of 2030."

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt directed BOEM to undertake a wider look at how Vineyard Wind and more than a dozen other proposed East Coast wind projects could affect fisheries, other maritime uses and the environment.

“This expanded scenario includes all named wind projects and state demand that can be met with existing leases,” according to a BOEM statement Thursday announcing the release of the document. “It also considers previously unavailable fishing data, a new transit lane alternative, and changes to the (Vineyard Wind) Construction and Operations Plan.”

“Public input is a core pillar to the renewable energy program and the expanded cumulative scenario is a direct result of stakeholder feedback received by our agency,” Cruickshank said in that prepared statement. “This expanded cumulative scenario is intended to better understand future impacts of the offshore wind industry while being responsive to the concerns of other ocean industries.”

The agency “recognizes that fishing is an important use of federal waters that will be considered in its decision-making,” according to the statement. “BOEM will engage with commercial and recreational fishermen to ensure a full understanding of potential impacts. BOEM will solicit input from the fishing community for project siting, best management practices, research, and monitoring.”

Specific to the Vineyard Wind project, the environmental statement considers six alternative scenarios for laying out the array – including a dedicated vessel transit lane, as wide as four nautical miles, that was proposed by the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a coalition of fishing groups.

Previously BOEM had put Vineyard Wind and other southern New England wind energy lease holders that they would probably be required to set aside transit lanes. But in a recent report, a Coast Guard study group opposed requiring those wider vessel traffic lanes through turbine arrays, arguing they could actually make navigation and fishing more hazardous.

“Although these larger navigation corridors may appear to provide more area for navigation, they actually provide far less area than the numerous corridors that result from the recommended array and spacing,” Coast Guard officials wrote in a notice published in the May 27 Federal Register. “Additionally, the project developers have made clear that larger corridors, even though fewer in number, would result in reduced WTG (wind turbine generator) spacing for the WEA. Because the reduced turbine spacing makes navigation more challenging, most traffic would then be funneled into the corridors thereby increasing traffic density and risks for vessel interaction.”

If wind developers are required to set aside large areas for lanes, that could compress remaining areas for turbine installation and reduce the 1 nautical mile spacing between generator towers now proposed by the companies, the Coast Guard study said. That would make it more difficult to maneuver in the turbine fields and even more severely restrict fishing on some 1,400 square miles of wind energy leases, it concluded.

The study says that 1-nm spacing is sufficient for both navigation and Coast Guard search and rescue operations. From that point of view, there would be 200 transit lanes through the leases, said Rachel Pachter, Vineyard Wind’s chief development officer, during the IPF online session.

The failure of wind developers and fishing groups to arrive at a consensus on traffic lanes led the Coast Guard to undertake the study. While the BOEM supplement appears to keep the dedicated transit lane on the table, the Coast Guard withholding support is a major setback for its proponents.

RODA executive director Annie Hawkins said the group is drafting a formal response to the Coast Guard report, arguing the study has structural and analysis flaws.

The Coast Guard report essentially tells fishermen and mariners “there’s going to be sticks in the water, get used to it,” said Hawkins.

BOEM’s live meetings will take place in a “virtual room” online and the agency is encouraging participants to register ahead. Information about the meetings, including instructions on how to register, may be found on BOEM’s virtual meeting room: https://www.boem.gov/Vineyard-Wind-SEIS-Virtual-Meeting.

Meetings are scheduled for:

Friday, June 26, 2020 at 5 p.m.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 at 1 p.m.

Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 5 p.m.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020 at 1 p.m.

Thursday, July 9, 2020 at 5 p.m.

Join us for a live webinar on Thursday, June 25, where we'll discuss many of these topics and also investigate what the vessel supply chain capabilities currently are, what building a future-ready offshore wind vessel looks like, how creative ideas will ensure timely development and investment, and lastly how characteristics of the northwest Atlantic working environment differ from the European model – and how that will affect vessel design and performance. Click here to register.

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.