State and federal officials today released a pair of marine wildlife studies on the presence of endangered whale, turtle and bird species to inform federal offshore wind development permitting processes. The studies, which are the result of a three-year effort sponsored by MassCEC in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), will provide baseline data to guide and expedite the federal permitting process for offshore wind development, and work to support the deployment of offshore wind in Massachusetts in an environmentally responsible manner.
The studies, which were funded by BOEM and the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, found no significant conflicts between wildlife and offshore wind development in federally designated wind energy areas beginning 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and identified opportunities to minimize impacts to marine wildlife in those areas. Researchers conducted the surveys using underwater acoustical buoys as well as aircraft flights staffed with wildlife observers. The large whale and sea turtle survey team was based at the New England Aquarium and a second team from the College of Staten Island studied impacts on seabirds.
“As the Commonwealth begins to harness the benefits of offshore wind power generation, it is imperative that we balance innovation with our obligation of environmental stewardship for the waters surrounding our state,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton. “These studies will streamline the permitting process for an emerging energy growth sector while protecting the environment so the Commonwealth can solidify its position as a hub of energy innovation while creating high-quality jobs and providing cost-effective power for ratepayers.”
The surveys greatly expand the existing understanding of wildlife presence and activity in the wind energy area. Federal permitting agencies will use the results of the studies to review developers’ site-specific plans for construction and operations of offshore wind projects.
“Offshore wind presents a significant resource of clean, homegrown, renewable energy for us to cultivate here in Massachusetts,” said MassCEC Interim CEO Steve Pike. “By completing this proactive environmental work, the Commonwealth is well positioned to realize significant benefits of the burgeoning offshore wind industry.”
The whale and turtle data was collected from 76 aerial surveys conducted in the study area between October 2011 and June 2015. The data was supplemented by more than 1,000 days of continuous underwater acoustic recording for whales. Throughout their observations, researchers from the New England Aquarium sighted 60 North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species, over the entire study only during winter and spring. The North Atlantic right whales primarily migrate into the area and engage in short-term feeding before moving onto feeding grounds throughout the Gulf of Maine.
“The data, information, and analyses developed through this long-term cooperative study have improved our understanding of the distribution and abundance of marine mammals and sea turtles in the area,” said Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management Director Bruce Carlisle. “The study demonstrates the effectiveness of collaboration across local, state and federal agencies, offshore wind developers, fishermen, and communities.”
Researchers from the College of Staten Island recorded 25 species of seabirds from a total of 38 aerial surveys conducted between November 2011 and January 2015.Two locations, known as “hotspots”, were identified where larger than average aggregations of seabirds occurred on a regular basis. Both hotspots were located outside the federal wind energy areas.
“This multi-year study is a major advance in the scientific understanding of marine mammals in what was largely a previously un-surveyed and uncharacterized habitat revealing new right whale habitat-use patterns and demonstrating consistent seasonal occurrence in portions of the study area,” said New England Aquarium Chief Scientist of Marine Mammals Dr. Scott D. Kraus. “The study provides a robust baseline assessment to inform the federal permitting process, and will help inform strategies to minimize or avoid impacts from construction or operations.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has lease agreements with three offshore wind developers – Deepwater Wind, DONG Energy, and Offshore MW – to build projects in the federal waters south of Massachusetts. They will compete to provide 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind – which would cut annual carbon emissions by 2.4 million tons and power one-third of Massachusetts homes – over the next 10 years as part of the comprehensive energy legislation signed by Governor Baker in August.
The studies build upon the MassCEC’s nation-leading efforts to advance the responsible and efficient deployment of offshore wind and position Massachusetts as a hub for the emerging U.S. offshore wind industry. These efforts also include the operation of the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, the first facility in the U.S. designed for offshore wind construction, assembly, and deployment projects; operation of the Wind Technology Testing Center, one of the largest in the world, helping manufacturers advance technology and drive down costs; an offshore wind transmission study to assess the most cost-effective cable routes and interconnection locations to incorporate offshore energy into the regional grid; a metocean data initiative to advance the collection of wind data near federal offshore wind energy areas south of Martha’s Vineyard; grants for offshore wind research at Massachusetts universities and institutions to optimize technology and deployment to Massachusetts wind and ocean conditions; supply chain analysis to connect Massachusetts manufacturers, suppliers, and service companies to offshore wind developers and contractors; and investment in training programs to ensure that Massachusetts residents have the skills and certifications necessary to participate in the offshore wind industry.
“Mass Audubon applauds MassCEC’s work that’s being done in terms of marine wildlife characterization and while we support the efforts to develop offshore wind energy off the coast of Massachusetts, we also support the efforts to protect the most important and critically endangered species in the North Atlantic,” said Jack Clarke, Director of Public Policy for Mass Audubon.
“Thanks to the leadership of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, we now have valuable information needed to protect vulnerable species like endangered North Atlantic Right Whales as offshore wind projects move forward,” said Catherine Bowes, Senior Manager at National Wildlife Federation. “National Wildlife Federation strongly supports responsibly developed offshore wind power, and we look forward to working together to ensure this new research guides our pursuit of a critically-needed new clean energy source for the Commonwealth.”
“The United States Bureau of Ocean Energy Management remains deeply committed to ensuring that renewable energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf is done in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper. “The survey results confirm that responsible commercial wind development activities in these Wind Energy Areas will not adversely affect protected species populations.”
“This is an important step in the responsible development of offshore wind,” said State Senator Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield). “We can and will preserve and protect marine life, while developing clean energy to tackle climate change.”
“These two studies contain important data showing the state can move forward on several clean energy initiatives that will not have an adverse impact on marine wildlife or the environment,” said House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading).
“In addition to our state’s world leading technological resources, we also have renewable energy generating capacities that are both environmentally sustainable and economically viable,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R- Gloucester). “Coastal communities will benefit from our ability to further develop off-shore wind production and this is particularly gratifying when we know there is science-based research intended to minimize impact on marine life. Conscientious efforts to prevent risk to species coupled with a decrease in our production of harmful greenhouses gases is environmental stewardship that helps us all.”
“I want to thank the MassCEC and the BOEM for their work on these valuable studies,” said State Senator Anne Gobi (D-Spencer). “Offshore wind power is an integral piece of the clean energy puzzle in the Commonwealth, and these studies will allow us to move closer to making it a reality.”
“As we develop renewable energy sources in the Commonwealth, I am proud to know that our federal and state bodies are maintaining the shared responsibility to protect our wildlife,” said State Representative Paul Schmid III (D-Westport), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “Offshore wind has serious potential for benefits here in Massachusetts, and I look forward to a more efficient permitting process thanks to these studies.”