U.S. Coast Guard Report Moves Offshore Wind Forward

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By Dana Goward 2016-05-05 17:13:27

The Coast Guard’s “Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study – Final Report” was released in February, with little fanfare – but it is one of the most important documents on the development of offshore wind energy this decade.

The report is the result of five years’ effort, much public input, and an interim study subjected to extensive public comment. And it was published in spite of the administration’s steadily decreasing budget and level of support for offshore development planning.

Initiatives at the beginning of the Obama administration to develop offshore wind energy got off to a rapid but rocky start. Some planners looked offshore and saw a vast, empty expanse that could be used entirely as they wished; their proposals would have sited wind farms on busy maritime routes, requiring tens of thousands of vessels each year to sail far out of their way to get to their destinations. Others would have sited wind farms so close to port entrances that the increased risk of collisions, allisions, groundings and environmental damage would have been unacceptable.

All these proposals were innocently (if improperly) made. Their preliminary environmental analyses did not even contemplate adverse impacts from additional maritime fuel consumption and emissions, the increased likelihood of oil spills, or the increase in risk to marine and human life. A rush to seize the moment for offshore wind seemed to combine with an apparent naiveté about maritime issues and a lack of due diligence. Maritime users were enraged, lawsuits were threatened and the president’s initiative was imperiled.

To help ensure the success of offshore wind energy for the United States, the Coast Guard initiated the “Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study” in May of 2011. Its formal goals were to determine whether or not the service should formally designate sea lanes or other traffic schemes, and to develop data and tools to better support offshore planning of all kinds. In other words, it was to find ways to optimize siting wind energy and other development, while preserving safety and the environment in one of the world’s busiest and most important maritime traffic areas.

In some ways the Coast Guard’s efforts were successful. The study resulted in recommendations for marine planning guidelines, appropriate widths of navigation routes for coastwise towing, and deep draft navigation routes that should be given priority over other uses. Hopefully the Coast Guard will promulgate these recommendations in the form of policy or best practices.

In other ways the study fell short. While it did improve the Coast Guard’s understanding of how to use AIS ship tracking information, the effort failed to develop the analytic and planning tools it said were needed for continued development of coastal waters. So in some sense the study is a snapshot of a specific moment in time. It did not result in the Coast Guard, or the nation, having the ability to continually and easily assess how well a proposed offshore project would impact commercial fishing, recreation, our essential coastwise marine highway system, or the container ships and tankers that are responsible for the bulk of our overseas trade.

The administration made an early and strong start with Marine Spatial Planning in the National Ocean Policy in July of 2010. It established overall principles along with a governance and advisory structure. An implementation plan followed in 2012. Unfortunately, early planning efforts for offshore wind energy were specifically de-coupled from the National Ocean Policy. Many officials were unwilling to even mention one when discussing the other. While there has been more cross talk and some coordination since then, actual support for planning and coordination efforts have faded in many ways. As an example, funding and personnel within the Coast Guard to support integration of all kinds of offshore facilities with vessel traffic has been steadily reduced over the last several years. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have had to make hard choices about funds for processing AIS vessel traffic data to make it easily accessible through the nation’s Marine Cadastre. This kind of information is essential to Marine Spatial Planning and analysis for any project or routine activity offshore.

Development of offshore wind energy is a huge step to a better and safer energy future. It will be a tremendous boon to America’s maritime industry, creating thousands of jobs. The overall positive impact to our economy will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. All of this can be had without damaging our essential and equally valuable marine transportation system.

The “Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study” should be one of the government’s first steps ensuring compatible use of our offshore waters, not one of its last. America’s offshore wind energy, marine transportation, and coastal waters are too important for anything less than the best in data collection, analysis and planning.

Mr. Dana Goward is the proprietor at Maritime Governance, LLC and president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He was formerly the maritime navigation authority for the United States working for the US Coast Guard. This included responsibility for initiating and helping guide the Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study until his retirement from the Senior Executive Service in August 2013. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

This entry has been created for information and planning purposes. It is not intended to be, nor should it be substituted for, legal advice, which turns on specific facts.

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