By David Wojick
New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith is outraged by the ever growing whale death toll, that coincides with rapidly increasing offshore wind development. He has introduced a much needed bill calling for an investigation of the impact assessment practices of those federal agencies that approve and oversee OSW.
Smith’s Bill is short but sweeping. It requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—commonly known as the congressional watchdog—to investigate the sufficiency of the federal environmental review process for “offshore wind projects, including the impacts on whales, other marine mammals, commercial and recreational fishing, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, vessel traffic, tourism, and the sustainability of shoreline beaches and inlets.”
Smith’s press release puts it this way: “As part of a full-court press for answers, my legislation will investigate the level of transparency from federal agencies that green-lighted this aggressive offshore wind development and determine how much scrutiny was implemented in reviewing the environmental and maritime safety of this project, especially given its unprecedented size and scale.”
In the crosshairs are the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which does the environmental impact assessments, and NOAA Fisheries which is supposed to protect the whales and other sea critters.
I have already reported on at least three glaring impact assessment procedural gaps in prior articles, as follows. Hopefully GAO will flag them.
First, BOEM failed to conduct an environmental impact assessment for the OSW leasing program, or for any of the many specific leases it granted. Extensive development activity was certain to occur, especially the sonar site surveying now implicated in the mounting whale deaths.
Second, NOAA Fisheries failed to conduct environmental impact assessments when it approved massive and potentially deadly harassment of huge numbers of whales and other marine mammals. Each sonar survey and construction approval actually estimates the number of critters in each species that is likely to be adversely effected. What the likely impact of these effects, especially panic, stress and/or deafness, might be has never been assessed.
Third, BOEM’s environmental impact assessments of these huge OSW projects to date are incredibly inadequate. For example they consistently fail to address the impact of operational noise. Nor is there any consideration of the cumulative impact of the thousands of monster wind turbines now in the approval pipeline.
The assessment requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act are based on what is “reasonably likely”. If an agency action is reasonably likely to have an environmental impact then that impact must be assessed. The impacts to be assessed are those that are reasonably likely to occur. It is a two step standard.
It is obvious that leasing an area for offshore wind development is reasonably likely to lead to such development, which certainly has reasonably likely environmental impacts. So assessment of those impacts should have been done prior to leasing.
It is likewise obvious that authorizing the noise harassment of thousands of whales and other marine mammals is reasonably likely to adversely affect them, so those effects should be assessed prior to authorization. This is true for sonar survey noise, construction noise (especially pile driving) and operational noise.
Moreover, NEPA is clear that when multiple agency actions are contemplated, as part of an overall program like offshore wind development, the cumulative impact of these actions must also be assessed. For example, last year NOAA Fisheries issued 12 separate authorizations for harassment of large numbers of whales and other marine mammals.
GAO is normally scrupulously apolitical when it comes to investigating or evaluating agency programs. The study Smith is proposing is desperately needed, so here’s hoping his bill becomes law.
Stay tuned to CFACT as this story unfolds.
- David Wojick
- David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy.
- For origins see http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html For over 100 prior articles for CFACT see http://www.cfact.org/author/david-wojick-ph-d/ Available for confidential research and consulting.
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