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Fall 2023: Biodiversity

Interview: Elizabeth Klein

Milo Charles Mason


  • Interview with Elizabeth Klein, who currently serves as the Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
  • Discusses current offshore wind projects in the U.S., oil and gas production, and climate change.
Interview: Elizabeth Klein
Fiordaliso via Getty Images

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Elizabeth Klein currently serves as the Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and previously served as Senior Counselor to Secretary Haaland at the Department of the Interior. Director Klein is an attorney who specializes in clean energy, climate change, and environmental law and policy. A member of the Biden-Harris administration since January 2021, President Biden is the third president under whom Director Klein has served at Interior, having worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Under Secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell, Director Klein served as Interior’s Associate Deputy Secretary as well as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Policy, Management and Budget.

NR&E: Thank you for this interview. Can you walk our readers through what the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) does?

Klein: Yes, happily. BOEM is one of the bureaus within the Department of the Interior. We oversee the energy and mineral resources on the U.S. outer continental shelf, known as the OCS, and we do that in an environmental and economically responsible way. Much of what we do is governed by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act or OCSLA [created in 1953, OSCLA defines the OCS as all submerged lands lying seaward of state coastal waters (3 miles offshore), which are under U.S. jurisdiction].

Elizabeth Klein, Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Department of the Interior

Elizabeth Klein, Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Department of the Interior

NR&E: And that gives the Secretary of the Interior exclusive management of the seabed.

Klein: Right. Oil and gas development has occurred for a long time on the OCS, but also, a little over a decade ago we created a new renewable energy program. We have a regulatory structure to manage the development of renewable energy infrastructure on the OCS. That could include all sorts of different types of renewable energy, but recently a lot of people have been working on offshore wind. We also manage the sand and gravel resources on the OCS, which benefit coastal restoration projects for local communities. Those are some important projects, particularly as communities are facing coastal erosion. So that’s a little snapshot of what we do.

NR&E: And your part of the of Interior tees up all the lease sales for the offshore wind areas and OCS oil and gas program.

Klein: Yes, we have a process to identify areas on the OCS that seem well-suited to offshore winds leasing. There are obviously a million ways to go about doing this. You could wait for projects to come and say we wish to and construct a project on the OCS, and then we have to make sure that that’s done in a certain way; but for some time now we have identified areas for leasing sales on the OCS. We go through a pretty rigorous process to try and deconflict as much as possible with other ocean uses and other potential impacts or conflicts that are out there on the OCS. Our oceans are busy places. They also are home to a lot of important natural resources. So prior to offering up areas for lease for offshore wind, we go through a process to try and deconflict as much as possible and hope to identify those sites that seem most well-suited for that type of development.

NR&E: What are your main challenges these days? There’s some opposition out there.

Klein: You know, it’s funny. I worked quite a bit on the development of the Department the Interior’s onshore renewable program back during the Obama administration, and folks used to say, “There’s no inch of public lands that people don’t care about,” and I think the same is true for the OCS. The ocean is a vast place, but there is a lot of activity happening there. We have important commercial activity in the form of shipping; the Coast Guard identifies fairways for ships and vessel traffic to move through. We have important fishing, commercial and recreational, but also subsistence fishing that takes place with many of the tribal communities that live on the coasts and engage in subsistence fishing. So, there’s important fishing resources out on the OCS. Also the Department of Defense and NASA certainly have important equities on the OCS. So that is an ongoing challenge. We have processes in place to try and not just get feedback from the various ocean users—states, tribes, local communities—about the types of activities that are important and are taking place in the OCS, but we also work very closely as sort of and all of government approach to try to deconflict areas and make them available for leasing if possible.

NR&E: Do we have any production from offshore wind farms now on the OCS currently?

Klein: Currently there are two offshore wind projects in the United States. One is the Block Island Wind Farm, offshore Rhode Island, which is actually in state waters, but has a transmission cable that BOEM approved because it crosses federal waters. That has five wind turbines and is up and running and generating power for the island. Then there’s also another project called the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project or CVOW that actually has a full commercial-scale proposal in front of us right now that we’re reviewing; but there’s a pilot project that’s associated with that, which is now operational. [Shortly after this interview was conducted, BOEM announced its approval of the CVOW on Oct. 31, 2023, calling it “the largest offshore wind project in the nation.”] There are two offshore wind turbines in the OCS that are about 27 miles off Virginia Beach. Then we so far have issued records of decision for three projects in federal waters, Vineyard Wind, South Fork, and Ocean Wind. So we are moving right along.

NR&E: Has the Nantucket wind farm ever gotten off the ground?

Klein: There is an area that was offered for lease in the vicinity of Nantucket. If you look at a map, it’s in the vicinity of offshore in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. There are a number of projects there, some of which are offshore of Nantucket. Now, the very first project proposed for federal waters was for Cape Wind, and it’s no longer moving forward.

NR&E: Back in the early ’90s the Corps of Engineers had planned to authorize a right of way for Cape Wind, but ran into the Secretary’s overriding management authority on the OCS.

Klein: Yes. There’s been a lot of developments certainly since that time. There was some confusion about what federal agency really had jurisdiction over these projects, and so, it was the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that affirmed that BOEM has the authority to conduct lease sales and then oversee approval of these projects. The Army Corps of Engineers actually still has an important role particularly as the projects tie back into shore, and in some cases will have a piece of the overall approval process. A lot of lessons have been learned in development since that time.

NRE: Certainly. How are those offshore floating platforms for wind tethered, or are they anchored out there like an offshore platform?

Klein: A lot of the technology used for the early projects located in relatively shallow water is similar to technology used on land; turbines are fixed and have pilings embedded into the sea floor. These are in the East Coast areas where the wind is strong, and the water is not as deep, relative to other places. Industry and the federal government have their eyes on the possibilities for moving offshore wind into deeper and deeper waters. While the East Coast is our focus right now, a lot of the U.S. OCS is in much deeper waters, so folks are looking at floating offshore wind, which includes having wind turbines tethered to the sea floor. Places like California and other West Coast areas, and some on the East Coast too, will utilize floating technology

NR&E: In your background, you dealt with a lot of the decarbonization of U.S. energy efforts. What year do you think offshore wind projects will replace coal energy production in the United States?

Klein: I think, in part, that’s the type of analysis that other agencies like the EIA and DOE are looking at. Certainly from our perspective we’re very focused on meeting the administration’s goal of around 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy capacity by 2030 and 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind energy capacity by 2035, all with the goal our administration has set of net-zero goals out to 2035 and 2050. BOEM’s role is to really make sure that we are doing our part to support this new clean energy in the United States and make sure that we’re being as supportive as possible to developing offshore wind.

NR&E: BOEM is at the forefront of helping to turn the fossil fuel aircraft carrier around, it’s slowly, but surely getting there. What’s new? Anything on the horizon? Are there any current projects for offshore wave energy capture, or how far into the future is that?

Klein: That’s a great question. There are very smart, innovative folks who are looking at a whole range of potential renewable energy technologies for the offshore, including wave and hydrokinetic energy. I just had an opportunity to talk with folks who are looking at tidal wave projects and their potential. I think those are out there, and I know the Department of Energy, for instance, has a number of programs and initiatives to try and support these new technologies and for BOEM’s part, a lot of our focus right now is on offshore wind just because that’s what is in front of us and a very viable technology in the near term. We have projects under construction already, Vineyard Wind and South Fork, have started construction and expect to be delivering power within the next couple of years to power homes. So that’s where we are. But we’re standing ready as these additional new technologies develop and want to make sure that we’re doing our part to lay the groundwork and say, here’s the regulatory structure and here’s how we proceed with these other types of technologies.

NR&E: Given the record heat on the planet, I can’t talk with you without raising that issue. What’s EIS’s analysis say about climate change or continuing extreme weather?

Klein: The evidence this month alone around the impacts of climate change are really stark reminders. The president has been clear that he thinks climate change is real. Obviously it’s upon us now, and the federal government has a responsibility to do something about it, which is central to developing these goals around offshore wind. I think whenever we undertake an analysis on any type of project, whether it’s a renewable project or some other project, we are mindful of the climate change related impacts that need to be evaluated. While there is no industrial-scale renewable energy project that will have zero impacts, when you think of the alternative, which is continuing to contribute to the climate crisis, that certainly is a key part of our decision-making.

NR&E: Switching a little bit to the five-year oil and gas program, what’s the status of it? I know you’ve had a couple lease sales that were mandated by recent legislation. What’s your view on those?

Klein: Yes, the Inflation Reduction Act directed us to conduct a couple of lease sales, and the last one in that list is on track. We were directed to hold lease sale 261 by the end of September of this year. That’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico, and we held one back in March as well, similarly directed by the Inflation Reduction Act. And the five-year plan is something that’s outlined in the OCSLA, which is essentially a schedule of new lease sales that take place during a five-year period. The current version of that plan has been under development for quite some time and has gone through a long and unique journey that has spanned both this administration and the last administration. The next step in the process is to release the proposed final program, and we’ve committed to doing that by the end of September. And then following the issuance of that proposed final program would be a decision by the Secretary on the five-year plan, and we’ve committed to issuing that before the end of the year.

NR&E: The Gulf of Mexico and U.S. oil and gas production for the last 10 years, we hear often how this administration hasn’t done much with it. But our production levels are in fact surpassing some of the earlier records right?

Klein: I think, in general, the Secretary has reflected that production on federal lands and waters remains despite rhetoric that might be out there. Certainly for BOEM, one of the interesting things in the Inflation Reduction Act is the direction that before we can execute offshore wind leases we have to have held an offshore oil and gas lease sale in the year prior. So we’re certainly mindful of that. And, as with many things at the Department of Interior, it’s a complicated picture and a set of responsibilities we take seriously.

NR&E: Yes, it’s hard to please all the people all the time.

Klein: Yes, I cannot make everybody happy.

NR&E: I see that finally after about 11 years BSEE (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement) and BOEM figured out what regulations are whose and what each is doing. I was involved in the early process of that before I retired, and it has been a long process.

Klein: Yes, we have recently issued a final rule that transfers responsibility for overseeing some OCS renewable energy activities from BOEM to BSEE, which we refer to internally as the “split rule.” We have now clearly identified our respective lanes. We work very closely with them.

NR&E: Any comments you want to make or advice for the young attorneys who are reading NR&E?

Klein: Part of what’s so fascinating about this role and so many of the jobs at BOEM, and in the area of environmental law generally, is that there is no shortage of important challenges to work through, and it’s an area of the law that I think will continue to evolve and pose really exciting work for folks who are interested. It’s funny; in law school I remember a first-year class that talked about how the law doesn’t change and how everything has already been tried. Actually, there is so much that’s evolving and that really presents a lot of great opportunities for young lawyers and for folks who are really interested in helping to move our country to cleaner sources of energy and address the climate change challenge.

NR&E: Thank you very much for this interview.

Klein: Thank you.