j van cise photos / Creative Commons

Businesses along the Carolina coast are generally supportive of offshore wind but not drilling.

In final months, Obama charts course for offshore energy in Southeast

In his final days in office, President Obama has both rejected Atlantic Ocean seismic testing – a precursor to drilling – and scheduled lease sales for what could become the Carolinas’ first offshore wind farm, 24 miles from the coast of the Outer Banks.

Advocates and businesses say the moves chart a clear path for the Southeast’s offshore energy future, and many hope bipartisan support and economic appeal can propel the initiatives forward under President-elect Trump.

Obama’s actions taken together “are important legacies for sustainable energy in our region,” said Jennifer Rennicks, a spokeswoman for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

‘Sigh of relief’

Obama disappointed Southeast drilling foes in December, when he announced a permanent ban on oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, but left out the ocean area south of Virginia – leaving it safeguarded only until 2022.

But they cheered the president earlier this month, when his Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) rejected six pending permits from Delaware to Florida for seismic testing – the oil and gas exploration technique scientists say can injure or kill dolphins, whales, and other sea animals.

“We thank the Obama administration for finishing the job in protecting the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling activities,” Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass said. “East Coast communities can finally take a well-deserved sigh of relief.”

Coastal businesses, local governments, conservation organizations, and a bipartisan suite of lawmakers had argued seismic testing put marine life at unwarranted risk, especially since drilling couldn’t occur anytime soon.

“To move forward with this testing is unnecessary and needlessly jeopardizes our natural resources and the health of our coastal communities,” Rep. Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, said last fall when he cosponsored a bill in Congress to ban seismic testing.

Hotels, surf shops, and other coastal businesses, who view a rig-free shoreline as vital to their economic success, now plan to press their case with the Trump administration.

“This important decision will buy us time to educate the next administration about the Atlantic Coast business community’s overwhelming opposition to offshore drilling,” said Frank Knapp of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

‘Massive energy potential’

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced BOEM will auction off 191 square miles of Atlantic Ocean near Kitty Hawk for offshore wind development.

While advocates say a wind farm with potentially hundreds of turbines is still five to ten years away, they hailed the prospective lease sale, scheduled for March, as a major milestone.

“North Carolina has the largest offshore wind resource in the nation (that can be harnessed economically with current technology),” wrote the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in a blog post, “and this lease sale is a concrete step to begin harnessing that massive energy potential.”

The step culminates a years-long planning process with wind developers, conservationists, the military, and local communities.

“It’s been six years in the making,” said Zachary Keith with the North Carolina Sierra Club. “It’s exciting to see it finally start to happen.”

The process involved multiple public meetings and comment periods, which drew few detractors and many supporters – especially as long as the wind turbines remained beyond the horizon.

Proponents included many of the same coastal businesses who spoke out against drilling and seismic testing.

“The business community seems to be in favor of the wind,” Karen Brown, president and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, said before a public session in Nags Head. “It’s certainly not in favor of any of the drilling alternatives.”

Throughout the planning process, as many as five wind companies indicated they may want to develop in the Kitty Hawk wind energy area. A total of nine developers wound up qualifying for the March auction.

Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, pointed to recent commitments from New York and other Northeastern states to purchase offshore wind, peaking interest from European companies.

“A year ago I would have been surprised,” she said. “However, offshore wind has gained so much momentum in the last year.”

Bipartisan and military cooperation?

Few want to predict how the Trump administration will handle these offshore energy measures moving forward, despite some of the president-elect’s statements, tweets, and cabinet selections.

BOEM, for its part, notes that the overwhelming majority of its employees are civil servants, not political appointees, and will implement plans announced under Obama until told otherwise.

“We can’t speculate on what a new administration may bring,” said BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty, “but in the meantime, we’re going to continue to fulfill our responsibilities. Those responsibilities are mandated under the [law].”

There’s also potential pushback from some GOP lawmakers in North Carolina, who grabbed headlines last week when they urged team Trump to shut down the Southeast’s first major onshore wind development, Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East.

The 10 state legislators say the wind farm conflicts with nearby military operations, concerns also expressed by Rep. Walter Jones, the Republican congressman whose district encompasses both the Amazon farm and the Outer Banks.

BOEM played no role in the onshore Amazon wind project (whose developer Avangrid Renewables has defended it as heavily-vetted with military officials).

But the agency said it had consulted extensively with both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense on the Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area. The former had no objections to the parcel of ocean being leased for turbines; the latter found “potential” impacts that could be avoided or limited, none significant.

Thus, said Moriarty, “BOEM will continue to coordinate with the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other stakeholders on all current and future offshore wind planning efforts.”

State Sen. Bill Cook, perhaps the most outspoken Amazon wind opponent among state legislators, did not respond to an inquiry for this story. The office of Rep. Jones, however, indicated he was open to an offshore wind development in his district.

“He still wants to examine and analyze the scheduled lease sale, and he still wants more time to speak with his constituents about it and get their thoughts,” said spokeswoman Allison Tucker. “His constituents are his top priority.”

That’s why advocates and wind developers like Avangrid’s Paul Copleman have hope.

“There are a number of Republican legislators that recognize the long-term economic benefits these projects provide for their communities,” he said.

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