GAO urged to probe energy project ‘double standard’
BOSTON - A majority of the state’s Congressional delegation is asking the U.S. Government Accountability Office to launch an inquiry into how the Trump administration evaluates and permits energy projects and whether fossil fuel projects are prioritized to the detriment of renewable energy projects, like Vineyard Wind.
In a letter to the GAO, the federal lawmakers said they are particularly concerned about the possibility that “the Trump administration is employing a double standard for environmental analysis that favors the fossil fuel industry” and asked that the GAO take up its own review of how the administration deals with energy projects. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey were joined in signing the letter by U.S. Reps. Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, Bill Keating, Seth Moulton, Katherine Clark, Lori Trahan and Joseph Kennedy III.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management sent shock waves through the offshore wind industry in August with its plan to hold off on developing the final environmental impact statement for Vineyard Wind - the Massachusetts-contracted project that is in line to be the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the country - while it studies the wider impacts of a sector that is hoping to quickly ramp up along the Northeast and mid-Atlantic coastline.
“As the federal government continues to delay the American offshore wind industry, while seeking to ease environmental review requirements for fossil fuel infrastructure and other extractive industries, it is critical that lawmakers understand whether the Trump administration is fairly and objectively applying environmental review standards, or whether the administration has a double standard that favors the fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewable energy projects,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter dated Wednesday.
Officials from Vineyard Wind, a joint venture of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables seeking to build an 84-turbine wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, had said in July that the entire project would be at risk if the federal government did not issue the project’s final environmental impact statement by the end of August. Since then, the company has affirmed its commitment to the project “albeit with a delayed project schedule.”
Vineyard Wind had originally planned to financially close on its project and begin on-shore construction work in 2019, put the first turbine into the seabed in 2021 and have the 84-turbine wind farm generating electricity in 2022.
The timeline for the federal government’s additional review remains unclear. Earlier this week, CommonWealth magazine reported that Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Katie Theoharides said that the federal government’s new timeline calls for the review to be completed by the end of 2020.
Theoharides’ office declined to answer questions regarding BOEM’s timeline and whether the federal agency had communicated with the state about the status of its review. In an email, a spokesman for BOEM said the agency “anticipates publishing a supplement to the Draft EIS for the Vineyard Wind Project and receiving public comments early this year. The schedule for next steps will be posted on BOEM’s website once it is finalized.”
Though the federal government is holding up the offshore wind industry, state lawmakers this week advanced at least two pieces of legislation meant to support a growing offshore wind industry in Massachusetts.
The Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy gave a favorable report Wednesday to a bill (H 2814) that would direct the state Department of Energy Resources to “competitively solicit proposals for expandable transmission that will deliver power produced by offshore wind energy generation.”
Now that the state has solicited two offshore wind projects totaling about 1,600 megawatts - Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind - DOER is planning to move forward in 2020 with a solicitation for a shared transmission line system that future generation projects would be required to tie into. Having one primary transmission system “has the potential benefit of minimizing impacts on fisheries, optimizing the transmission grid, and reducing costs,” a 2019 DOER report concluded.
The committee also gave a favorable report to a redrafted version of a House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad bill (H 2867) which, in its initial form, directed DOER to procure a total of 3,200 megawatts of offshore wind - which DOER also has said it plans to do - and to reduce the time between solicitations from two years to one year.