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Ocean Planning Success: New Agreement Will Promote Offshore Wind and Protect Precious Whales

Sarah Chasis

Posted December 11, 2012 in Reviving the World's Oceans

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In a landmark agreement announced today, three leading offshore wind energy companies and several environmental groups have come together in favor of smart offshore wind energy development and protections for endangered ocean creatures. Together, they have outlined a plan to safely develop offshore wind energy along the East Coast without harming the North Atlantic right whale—one of the world’s most endangered giants. With the Obama Administration moving to expedite wind energy projects off our coasts, this cooperative effort is a fantastic example of the smart-from-the-start planning our oceans need.

Offshore wind turbines off our shores can increase the clean, renewable energy flowing into our grid, reducing our dependence on polluting fossil fuels that are harming our climate and our seas.  But ocean planners and advocates also want to ensure that the development of this promising new industry is consistent with protection of endangered sea creatures, such as the North Atlantic right whale. Correctly locating offshore wind farms and incorporating prudent protection measures into development plans is therefore extremely important, in order to safeguard the health of these ocean ecosystems, while still growing our clean energy economy.

Today, fewer than 500 right whales remain, earning them the sad title of one of the world’s most endangered creatures. Each year, these magnificent creatures migrate from their summer feeding grounds off the coast of New England down to Georgia and Florida, where they give birth in the warmer waters. By siting offshore wind turbines correctly, we can avoid interrupting their natural migration patterns with potentially harmful noise and ship traffic. Good planning like this ensures we can protect these creatures, and get clean, climate change-fighting offshore wind power up and running.

With this background in mind, NRDC and other environmental groups have been working closely with wind developers to ensure that both the whales are protected and the wind companies can capitalize on growing market opportunities. The win-win agreement reached this week includes several compromises on how companies can explore, test, and develop offshore wind sites, including:

  • Seasonal restrictions on certain noise-generating  activities during the whales’ peak migration through the Mid-Atlantic region on their way between their calving and feeding grounds;
  • Limits on boat speed at and near offshore wind sites;
  • Preventive measures, such as the use of noise-reducing technologies, that reduce risk during non-peak period of the migration.
  • And real-time monitoring by marine mammal observers to ensure that whales are not getting too close to potentially harmful activities.

This type of comprehensive planning—incorporating the concerns and ideas of multiple stakeholders—is gradually making its way into our national dialogue when it comes to ocean management. A fundamental concept of our first-ever National Ocean Policy, marine spatial planning can help evaluate the costs and benefits of various ocean activities occurring in the same area—from fishing and shipping to energy development and recreation—while incorporating the need to protect fragile ecosystems now and for generations to come.

And as has already been shown in economic studies, this coordination between various industries and stakeholders can help maximize economic benefits and minimize losses. One study in Massachusetts concluded that optimal siting of offshore wind zones could generate more than $10 billion in extra value for the clean energy sector, and prevent $1 million in losses to nearby fishing and whale-watching industries, as compared to the status quo. 

Thanks to the cooperation and comprehensive thinking of wind developers and environmental groups, smart-from-the-start planning is taking shape off our east coast. In the coming years, we can expect to see cleaner, renewable energy flowing into our grid, while North Atlantic right whales continue their migration down to warmer waters. And with smart planning efforts like this leading the way, we’re looking forward to a healthier and more sustainable future for our oceans.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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