(Dec. 28, 2018) After the prospect of wind turbines on the horizon alarmed officials in 2017, more bad news came in 2018 when the possibility of oil exploration off the coast presented itself.
On Jan. 4, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released a draft proposal for its 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which would open more than 98 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf for potential oil and gas leases. Three proposed locations are off the coast of Maryland.
In late February, the Ocean City Council approved a resolution reiterating its opposition to offshore oil and gas drilling.
“While we support most of the benefits of offshore wind,” Mayor Rick Meehan said, “We can’t find anything that benefits the Town of Ocean City [or] the State of Maryland … in having drilling for gas and oil off the Atlantic coast.”
Meehan traced local government’s continuing concern back to a comparable resolution from Oct. 1974. Signed by then Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelly, the resolution noted the serious potential for “polluting the natural environment of Maryland’s only seashore resort.”
In September 2015, the council passed a resolution opposing a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposal to permit seismic blasting for oil and gas exploration off the Maryland coast.
“We’ve been very clear in our opposition,” he said.
The 2018 resolution described the proposed actions as a “clear and present danger,” to Ocean City due to the discharge of production waste, the potential for catastrophic oil spills and possible visual impacts.
“This resolution will be sent to the governor of the State of Maryland and our congressional representatives,” he said.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Draft Proposed Program is the first of three analytical phases required to develop its 2019-2024 leasing program. The 60-day period for public comment ended on March 9.
Meehan, while noting an additional comment period would take place if the project moves to the next phase, said the city would send written comments to the bureau while also encouraging concerned parties to weigh in online or via mail.
Ocean City government’s campaign to keep wind turbines from becoming part of the seaside horizon resumed center stage center in early-March after the General Assembly held hearings for SB1058 and HB1135, companion legislation designed to alter distance requirements for turbines from between 10-30 nautical miles to not less than 26 nautical miles off the coast. A nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles.
The Annapolis bills were an outgrowth of a resolution passed by the City Council on Feb. 5 that opposed the construction of offshore structures that would be visible from shore. The next day the Worcester County Commissioners followed suit with their own vote in opposition to placing turbines within view of the resort’s oceanfront.
The Maryland Public Service Commission issued conditional approvals in May 2017 for US Wind and Skipjack Wind to construct hundreds of turbines off the Ocean City Coast.
The original terms established US Wind’s project would be located 12-15 nautical miles offshore, with an added stipulation to build structures as far east as practical.
Before it received state approval in May, US Wind attempted to assuage Ocean City officials’ fears by pledging to place the turbines 17 nautical miles from shore.
That July, however, the council asked both companies to place turbines 26 nautical miles (about 30 statute miles) offshore.
Testifying in March during General Assembly hearings for SB1058 and HB1135, James Bennett, Bureau of Ocean Management renewable energy program manager, presented an overview of the wind energy area lease approval process, which got underway in 2010.
In April 2010, a task force was created to examine the issue, which Bennett said continued to meet bi-yearly though 2013. Maryland leases were issued on Dec. 1, 2014.
Bennett broke down the four-stage approval method for wind energy projects, which starts with a two-year planning and analysis phase. This is followed by up to two years to complete the lease process and an additional five years for site assessment. The final stage involves a construction and operation plan, which takes roughly two years to build, with an estimated quarter century of anticipated energy production.
“The site assessment plan is done and moving forward with still a little to go,” he said. “We are still not at the first day of the (construction plan) process.”
Bennett noted obstacles remain that could make moving turbines at least 26 nautical miles problematic.
“There [are] two corridors of vessel traffic which converge just to the west of the [lease] area,” he said.
Additionally, Bennett said bathymetric charts indicate ocean depths increase to nearly 200 feet as the distance from shore grows.
“That’s where you get beyond the shallow shelf that is appropriate for the technology that we’re trying to deploy,” he said.
Bennett also noted altering the turbine distances to 26-nautical miles or greater would start the approval clock over.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said the scale of the proposed turbines has changed significantly since the task force supported the original 10-nautical mile distance more than half a dozen years ago.
“At that time, those were two megawatt power and significantly smaller than what’s being proposed today,” he said.
Meehan got his first visual rendering of the turbines from the beach during a Public Service Commission meeting in late March 2017 at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin. In May of that year the state PSC approved two projects off the Maryland and Delaware coasts, one by US Wind and the other by Skipjack Wind.
“I stood up and held up those renderings and said, ‘this is much more dramatic than anybody had ever anticipated,’” he said. “We’ve been in dialogue throughout but the ... game has changed.”
Bennett said even though the last phase for authorization is approaching, the time for changes has not passed.
“This is not a closed process [and] there are lots of opportunities for input,” he said. “We can be contacted at anytime by stakeholders.”
Later that month, HB1135 received an unfavorable report from the House Economic Committee on Monday by a 14-5 vote.
In reaction to the legislative roadblock, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan quickly issued a letter thanking Public Service Commission Chairman Kevin Hughes for his earlier testimony before the House Economic Matters Committee, where he highlighted another potential avenue for legal recourse.
“If US Wind proceeds to construct an 8 megawatt or larger tower, that would be considered a material change, which would require US Wind to come back to the Public Service Commission for permission and approval subject to a … hearing,” he said.
The State Senate also investigated offshore drilling in March after Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38) became sole sponsor for SB1128 the Offshore Drilling Liability Act and primary sponsor for SJ11 a joint resolution seeking to protect Maryland’s coastal area from oil and gas energy exploration. Both pieces of legislation had Senate hearings on March 13.
Mathias joined joined 41 co-sponsors who supported a joint resolution asking the federal government to give Maryland the same consideration it gave to Florida, which less than a week after January’s draft proposal announcement was removed from the list.
If protecting the coast fails, Mathias said SB1128 is intended to hold the federal government financially accountable, up to $100 million, if offshore drilling caused a natural disaster.
“If congress would act in a reckless manner and let this go forward, the legislation establishes strict liability penalties,” he said.
Corresponding house legislation, HB1456, sponsored by Delegate Kumar Barve (D-17), was vetted before the Judiciary Committee on March 7.
“Barve said the bill would apply the same strict liability standards for damages by oil or gas drilling that Maryland established for the Chesapeake Bay.
By April, the Offshore Drilling Liability Act passed both chambers but was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May.
After receiving a 47-0 favorable Senate vote, the joint resolution failed to clear the House before session closed in April.
The wind turbine debate fired back up in late July when US Wind reiterated the approval process is ongoing in response to concerns shared with City Council from commercial seafood industry representatives earlier that month.
Salvo Vitale, US Wind general counsel, said although the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved a site assessment plan this March, which was originally submitted in April 2016, evaluation of the construction and operation phases would provide further opportunity for public comments.
“Everyone will be told once again to submit their observations or mitigation measure proposals,” he said.
In November 2010, as part of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, BOEM initiated a leasing process to establish Maryland offshore wind energy areas.
In August 2014, BOEM auctioned two lease areas off the Maryland coastline totaling 79,000 acres. The winning bid of $8.7 million was submitted by US Wind, a subsidiary of Renexia, an Italian renewable energy company.The leases went into effect in December 2014 and were subsequently merged into a single lease area this March. Several weeks later, BOEM approved US Wind’s site assessment plan that was submitted in April 2016.
In terms of next steps, US Wind hopes to submit its Construction Operation Plan by the end of this year. Vitale described that as an extensive document that requires further surveys and continued analysis.
Concerns about offshore oil drilling rose to the surface again on Nov. 30 after the Trump Administration granted a handful of “incidental harassment authorizations,” or IHAs, permitting five private firms to employ seismic airgun blasts to determine if big reservoirs of oil or gas are buried beneath the sea floor between southern New Jersey and central Florida.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said deep penetration seismic surveys, which are conducted by vessels towing an assortment of airguns that emit acoustic energy pulses into large sections of seafloor over long durations, could penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor. The sonic blasts go off every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day for the duration of a mapping exercise, which can last several weeks.
This is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to boost offshore oil and gas production, starting with the America First Energy Plan rolled out shortly after taking office, which was followed by an executive order in April 2017 seeking to expand drilling and exploration in U.S. waters.
The executive order also sought to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, most notably a drilling ban in parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic Oceans, as well as reversing a Jan. 2017 denial for half dozen drilling permits in the south and mid-Atlantic regions.
The plans drew widespread opposition from a multitude of communities on the Atlantic coast.