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Climate

What Trump Could Do to Offshore Wind

It’s not pretty.

Donald Trump snapping a wind turbine.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Clean energy developers and the bankers who fund them are all pretty confident that a change in power in Washington, should one occur next year, won’t mean the end of the Inflation Reduction Act or the buildout of renewables across the country — except, that is, when it comes to offshore wind. Trump has special contempt for wind energy in all its forms — to him, all wind turbines are bird murderers, but offshore turbines are especially deadly, adding both whales and property values to their list of victims. He has said he will issue an executive order on day one of his second turn as president to “make sure that that ends.”

While the scope and legal enforceability of any potential executive order remain unclear, the wind industry, environmental activists, and analysts have all found plenty of other reasons to be worried.

“I think it’s safe to say that it’s pretty clear from Trump’s first term in office and everything he’s been saying on the campaign trail that he’s pretty hostile towards offshore wind,” David Rogers, the deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told me.

Trump’s first administration exhibited a kind of bipolar attitude toward offshore wind — sometimes issuing press releases bragging about leasing to developers, sometimes dragging out environmental approval for major projects.

In December, 2018, when the Department of the Interior leased some 2 million acres of ocean territory to offshore wind developers for almost $500 million, the office put out a press release bragging about a “BIDDING BONANZA” and quoting then-Secretary Ryan Zinke saying “to anyone who doubted that our ambitious vision for energy dominance would not include renewables, today we put that rumor to rest.”

The next year, the department delayed and expanded its review of what was then the country’s most advanced wind project, Vineyard Wind, a move that many advocates interpreted as tantamount to canceling it. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who had taken over the department following Zinke’s ignominious resignation, has since defended the review, claiming that he was trying to put the project on firmer legal footing. Vineyard Wind’s developers eventually pulled their permit application and refiled it under the new Biden administration; the project began generating power off the coast of New England early this year, though not before New York’s South Fork Wind beat it onto the grid.

With the U.S. offshore wind industry now far more mature, advocates worry that similar shenanigans would either delay or effectively deny new wind projects that have yet to come online.

David Stevenson, the director of the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Center for Energy & Environmental Policy, who served on Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team and is a longtime opponent of offshore wind, predicted that should Trump win, he would follow through on his promises. “The first thing there will be a day one executive order,” Stevenson told me. That order would almost certainly stop any new approvals, plus possibly stop new construction. Stevenson also said that a Trump administration could settle lawsuits over approvals given to wind projects by agreeing to halt them.

Other tactics at Trump’s disposal could include ceasing new lease auctions; underfunding and understaffing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Interior Department agency that handles offshore wind; or simply rejecting permits.

“During the Trump administration’s first term, it banned all offshore exploration off of the southeast Atlantic coast — that included drilling and offshore wind. That put a halt on all offshore wind development,” Rogers said. “It wouldn’t be shocking to see some kind of moratorium put in place.”

Not only might new leasing slow to a halt, but projects that are still waiting for final construction authorization from BOEM for might also find themselves stuck in limbo.

“We consider the primary risk here would relate to new projects, rather than existing ones operational or under construction, for example through a federal ban, delay or moratorium on permitting,” Morgan Stanley analyst Robert Pulleyn wrote in a note to clients. Analysts listed three East Coast wind projects with permitting expected to be completed this year — Sunrise Wind in New York, Atlantic Shores South in New Jersey, and Momentum in Maryland — that may yet survive. But Morgan Stanley also identified some 6,500 megawatts of planned projects that are not yet fully permitted that could be at risk in a more wind-hostile White House.

Slow-walking wind the more roundabout way, by reducing staffing, would be a bit trickier for Trump. But as his past record shows, it would also be far from impossible.

“Agency funding levels — which are an important consideration when it comes to staffing — are the result of a negotiation between the executive and legislative branches. So if there is a Trump Administration, the composition of Congress will also influence staffing,” Paul S. Weiland, a partner at the law firm Nossaman LLP, told me in an email. “That said,” he added, “the administration can, more or less by itself, stop hiring and create conditions where staff attrition increases.”

The industry is fully cognizant of these challenges and is preparing a counterargument that focuses not just on clean energy production, but also on the economic and infrastructure development that comes with offshore wind.

At a conference hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Meghan Schultz, the chief financial officer of Invenergy, which has offshore wind leases in California and New Jersey, said “it will be important that we’re working as an industry to educate this administration on the value these projects will bring.” She also specifically mentioned the buildout of port infrastructure as something that could be appealing to a Trump White House.

In a recent interview on the Odd Lots podcast, meanwhile, the Danish energy company Orsted’s Americas chief executive, David Hardy, mentioned “job creation, the infrastructure and its core things like steel and ports and ships and factories” as “bipartisan” benefits of offshore wind.

There are even some Republicans in Washington who have supported offshore wind in the past, typically hailing from states that are otherwise friendly to energy development. So while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis staunchly opposes offshore wind development (Florida’s coasts are for tourism and real estate, not industrial development), Louisiana Republicans including House Minority Leader Steve Scalise and Senator John Cassidy have been more supportive. Scalise and Cassidy both signed a bipartisan letter in 2019 encouraging Interior to finish its review of Vineyard Wind, and Cassidy cheered offshore wind leasing in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re an ‘all of the above’ energy state,” Cassidy said at the ACORE conference. “I think offshore wind ideally has a tremendous role.”

But offshore wind off the coast of Louisiana may have more physical and economic problems than political ones, thanks to the Gulf’s relatively low wind potential and high frequency of extreme weather, while offshore wind developments on the East Coast have been beset by delays, drastic cost increases, and cancelled projects.

There is a degree to which advocates for wind energy, in addition to going about their usual work, will just have to pray for the best: “We hope that developers who have leases in hand and have responsibly-sited projects that they’re working to get approved will fight to develop those projects,” Rogers told me.

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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