What Does The New Agreement On Offshore Wind In The Great Lakes Mean? Not Much, Yet.

An offshore wind farm in Denmark. Could this be the view in the Great Lakes soon? Credit: Scandia Wind

This morning, the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced that it’s reached an agreement that will speed up the permitting process for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes. The agreement comes in the form of a memorandum of understanding with five of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

On a conference call this morning, officials said the total potential for wind energy in the Great Lakes is about equal to building 700 nuclear power plants. They said wind on the Great Lakes could power millions of homes.

The MOU includes nine federal agencies, and the states of Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Not included are Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, though they can sign on later.

But what’s actually in the memorandum of understanding? Very little, but what’s there could still make a difference.

The entire agreement is 12 pages long. It spells out each agency that has a say in regulating offshore wind projects. All the MOU really requires is that these agencies make a reasonable attempt to work together with the states.

The MOU is just as clear about what it doesn’t do, for example, from the agreement:

Nothing in this MOU may be construed to obligate the Participants to any current or
future expenditure of resources.

The MOU also doesn’t create any new agencies or laws:

This MOU is intended only to enhance and strengthen the working relationships of the Participants in connection to offshore wind energy proposals in the Great Lakes region and is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States or any State, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Nonetheless, the MOU does include certain requirements of the participants, “including attendance at periodic meetings,” though this is only “to the extent resources allow.” So, basically, you don’t really have to show up at the meetings if you’re short on staff, or your travel budget is tight.

The one concrete, and possibly very useful provision of the agreement, is that the agencies and states agree to create a regulatory roadmap.

… a document that describes the regulatory review process and identifies current and anticipated data needed to inform efficient review of proposed offshore wind energy facilities in the Great Lakes.

The roadmap must be completed and published 15 months from now. It might not sound like a lot. But the truth is, offshore wind is incredibly confusing from a regulatory standpoint. Nine federal agencies have jurisdiction, plus each state has its own agencies, and in many areas there are tribal jurisdictions.

Regulatory uncertainty is one of the things that’s held offshore wind back in the Great Lakes. The other, of course, is that many flat out oppose wind farms on the Lakes. Public opposition has already halted at least two proposals for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes – one in New York and another in Michigan.

On this morning’s conference call, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the new agreement won’t settle any of the public disagreements over offshore windfarms.

“This is not a comment on any particular project or on the substance of what any groups may think, for or against,” Poneman said. “It is indifferent as to what the specific groups are proposing or opposing.”
Poneman said the intent instead is to speed up the regulatory process, and get governments out of the way. How much the MOU will speed things up, he couldn’t say, since the federal government has yet to officially approve any wind turbines for any of the Lakes.
But the hope is, that when and if offshore wind power does come to the Great Lakes, governments won’t be the ones holding it back.