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Impact of the New Administration on National Offshore Wind Strategy: Three Things to Watch

2016 was a banner year for offshore wind development in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Interior (DOI) jointly released a national strategy to facilitate the development of offshore wind. If fully executed, the National Offshore Wind Strategy has the potential to generate 7,200 TWh a year, which would be enough to provide “nearly double the total electric generation of the United States in 2015.”

Adding to this momentum were the opening of Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm, the first U.S. offshore wind project, and the auctioning off of nearly 80,000 acres off the coast of New York for proposed wind development. 

These events have attracted considerable attention and excitement. But that optimism has been somewhat tempered by doubts about what a Trump presidency means for continued offshore wind development—after all, the president has previously referred to wind turbines as “monstrous,” “ugly,” and “bad for people’s health,” among other things. Will we see further implementation of the National Offshore Wind Strategy? Or will offshore wind go the way of other Obama-era climate and energy initiatives? 

In seeking to answer that question, much attention has been focused on the federal investment tax credit (ITC), and justifiably so—it is one of the keys to unlocking offshore wind resources. But it is also important to keep an eye on three issues of environmental policy that have the potential to shape the future of offshore wind development:

  1. Efforts to streamline federal environmental review and permitting approvals
  2. Federal budgetary support for renewable projects
  3. State regulatory reactions to the apparent demise of the Clean Power Plan (CPP)

Streamlining Environmental Review

It’s no secret that a complex environmental review and permitting regime threatens to limit continued offshore wind development. 

With that in mind, it’s worth considering President Trump’s January 24, 2017, Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects (EO). The EO states a policy intended to “streamline and expedite” environmental reviews and approvals “for all infrastructure projects, especially projects that are a high priority for the Nation, such as improving the U.S. electric grid and telecommunications systems and repairing and upgrading critical port facilities, airports, pipelines, bridges, and highways.”

It further specifies that upon request by a governor, by the head of a federal agency, or on his or her own initiative, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) shall determine whether a project qualifies as “high priority,” and, for any such project, shall establish expedited procedures and deadlines for completing environmental reviews and approvals. Depending on its implementation by CEQ, the EO may successfully expedite offshore wind projects (and/or related on-shore infrastructure). Alternatively, it may fast-track other projects and push offshore wind project reviews and approvals to the back burner. 

It’s also worth keeping an eye on the legislative arena. While congressional Republicans and Democrats may not see eye to eye on many issues, infrastructure is one area where bipartisan legislation is possible—and it would not be unexpected for such legislation to include provisions further streamlining federal environmental review and permitting requirements. 

The Federal Budget

Aside from the practical purpose of allocating monetary support, the federal budget also serves as a policy document that articulates where a new administration will focus its efforts.  

The federal budget can be particularly important for complex, long-term projects like offshore wind development, which depend on stable agency programs, incentives, and staffing necessary to process and advance complex projects. At a programmatic level, advancing offshore wind development requires close collaboration among numerous federal agencies and departments, including DOI, Bureau of Oceanic Energy Management (BOEM), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Without sufficient agency staffing and institutional support, even the best projects may be left high and dry. 

As this article was going to press, rumors of a proposed “blueprint” for the 2018 federal budget were circulating. Officials familiar with the blueprint reported that it proposes to slash the budget of the EPA and the renewable energy shop at the DOE, among others. The blueprint is expected to be published in mid-March.

An Increase in State Incentives? 

One of President Trump’s most consistent campaign promises was to reverse the CPP. Although it is not yet clear exactly how the Trump administration will unwind the CPP, there is little doubt that the unwinding will be a priority.

As a general matter, there tends to be an inverse relationship between the extent to which climate regulation is undermined in Washington, D.C., and the extent to which climate regulation accelerates at the state and local levels, particularly in liberal coastal states like California, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Thus, the demise of the CPP may indirectly increase state-level incentives for renewable energy projects, including offshore wind.

Matthew Adams (left) is chair of Dentons’ US Environment and Natural Resources practice where he helps clients address environmental, land use, water, and climate change issues related to energy, infrastructure, and natural resource development projects. In addition, Adams advises on permitting, compliance, regulatory development, and litigation with a particular focus on matters arising under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and other environmental impact assessment laws.

Jessica Duggan is a member of Dentons’ Environmental and Natural Resources practice.  Her practice includes environmental, land use, renewable energy and natural resources law, with a particular focus on advising project developers, public agencies, Indian tribes and trade associations on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental laws. Jessica’s practice also involves all aspects of environmental due diligence and counseling clients on environmental compliance matters in a wide range of corporate transactions. Jessica is also active in Dentons’ Native American Law and Policy practice, where she is an active member of the firm’s tribal litigation practice team and an enrolled tribal member of the United Houma Nation.

Lead image credit: Department of Energy and Climate Change | Flickr