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Ocean Planning Can Help Resolve Offshore Wind Conflicts

Enrico G Picozza


  • Focuses on the rise of offshore wind, the challenges it faces, and the promising future that could manifest by harnessing the full potential of the oceans in a sustainable way.
  • Discusses the opportunities and conflicts with offshore wind.
  • Asks if ocean planning can help resolve offshore wind conflicts.
Ocean Planning Can Help Resolve Offshore Wind Conflicts
Mischa Keijser via Getty Images

Imagine, for a moment, driving through the streets of a major metropolis without the aid of a GPS. Visualizing this experience may evoke frenzied images of difficult one-way streets, countless dead ends, and an overwhelming amount of traffic. Unfortunately, our oceans are following a similar path. 

For as long as there has been human civilization, the oceans have consistently been a major part of our livelihoods. From traditional trades such as maritime shipping and fishing to the modern fields of energy and resource production, this seemingly vast marine space is increasingly becoming congested. Additionally, an ever rising human population has increased the demands placed on the ocean more than at any other time in our history. With this increased demand and congestion come astronomical challenges. These challenges range from spatial disputes with legacy maritime stakeholders to ecological conflicts caused by these stakeholders, both old and new. This article focuses on the rise of one such recent stakeholder, offshore wind, the challenges it faces, and the promising future that could manifest by harnessing the full potential of the oceans in a sustainable way.

The Opportunity Presented by Offshore Wind

In early 2021, the Biden administration announced a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind in the United States by 2030, creating nearly 80,000 jobs, generating enough energy to power more than 10 million homes, and avoiding 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions  Currently, the offshore wind industry is still in its infancy with only two pilot projects operational, generating approximately 42 megawatts (MW) in total. Although there are only seven operational wind turbines in U.S. waters, there are around 20 other proposed offshore wind projects in various stages of development that together add up to 30 GW.

Offshore Wind Faces Conflicts

Offshore wind is an up-and-coming industry, and certain legacy stakeholders, including fishermen, maritime shippers, and local municipalities, are understandably concerned that its growth may cause undesired impacts. Today, U.S. offshore wind leases constrain more than 1,353,299 acres (1,596 square nautical miles) of ocean space. Some legacy stakeholders claim that these offshore wind fields will have a detrimental impact on their livelihoods. For example, fishermen argue that offshore wind will substantially restrict their access to prosperous fishing grounds. Maritime shippers suggest that wind farms could conflict with shipping lanes and thereby impact the safety and efficiency of shipping. Even some local municipalities are taking “not in my backyard” positions because of their concerns over potential noise impacts and possible effects to coastal aesthetics.

The offshore wind industry must also address several ecological risks that result from offshore wind farm construction and operation. Each project has many ecological and geophysical impacts to consider with varying levels of risk. The Vineyard Wind Offshore Wind Draft Environmental Impact Statement articulates many of these risks. For example, pile-driving the turbines during construction generates substantial noise, which has drawn particular attention due to its potential impact on marine mammals. Furthermore, once a wind farm is operational, the spinning turbines have drawn major concerns regarding seabird and bat mortality.

The foregoing suggests that as opportunities to utilize the oceans increase, ecological and spatial conflicts will also increase. Legal battles may become more common and the ocean's general health will continue to be at risk of unsustainable disruption. Such a future need not become a reality, however. Instead, the discipline of ocean planning, when properly implemented, can aid in optimizing the utility of the oceans while minimizing impacts to legacy maritime stakeholders and marine ecological fitness.

What Is Ocean Planning?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes ocean planning as a “field that uses science and information to advance local and regional interests and keep the ocean and the economy healthy.” Put differently, ocean planning is a snapshot of the ocean that annotates all current ocean activities, both natural and artificial, and presents them to the public in a comprehensive way. Ocean plans can implement a framework for sustainably introducing new stakeholders into the ocean economy with less opposition. They can also outline paths to support legacy stakeholders in reducing their own frictions with ecological and spatial challenges. Ultimately, applied correctly, ocean plans are ever-evolving blueprints designed to assist in optimizing ocean uses with minimal intrusions on other stakeholders while maintaining ecological well-being.

The History of Ocean Planning in the United States

In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13547, establishing the National Ocean Council, which developed and released the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. Section 8 of the Executive Order and the provisions of the Implementation Plan set forth mechanisms for the establishment of Regional Planning Bodies (RPB). These RPBs were charged with developing ocean plans (sometimes referred to as Marine Spatial Plans). However, in 2018, President Trump issued Executive Order 13840, revoking and replacing Executive Order 13547. Notably, this subsequent Executive Order replaced the National Ocean Council with the Ocean Policy Committee (OPC), and RPBs with regional partnerships, substantially changing many aspects of federal ocean policy. Yet, Executive Order 13840 continued to emphasize the importance of ocean planning and supported this initiative through “improved public access to marine data and information, efficient interagency coordination on ocean-related matters, and engagement with marine industries, the science and technology community, and other ocean stakeholders.” Most recently, in December 2023, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 codified the OPC and the regional partnerships and allocated over $10 million annually through 2027 to “carry out activities of such partnerships.”

Currently, the regional partnerships consist of the Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC), the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO), and the West Coast Ocean Alliance (WCOA). Each of these organizations coordinate and collaborate on a regional and federal basis to support various uses and conservation measures related to that region’s coastal resources. Each partnership also compiles and publishes its own data portals, which are available for public access. On the federal level, through a joint initiative between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NOAA, addressed in section 5(c) of Executive Order 13840, the Marine Cadastre implements and successfully streamlines the release of unclassified federal data to the public, providing “authoritative data to meet the needs of offshore energy and marine planning communities."

With this federal and regional data readily accessible, states are in an excellent position to successfully create and implement their own ocean plans.

Can Ocean Planning Help Resolve Offshore Wind Conflicts?

Case studies have shown that ocean planning can help resolve offshore wind conflicts. The state of Rhode Island, with its RI Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), was the first state to successfully implement an ocean plan that extended into federal offshore waters for future uses and preservation. This plan, with support from grants issued through NOAA under the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), and drawing from Europe’s offshore renewable energy efforts, led to an understanding between all maritime stakeholders and, eventually, the installment of the first operational offshore wind farm in the United States The state of Washington’s marine spatial planning process, administered in conjunction with the state’s federally-approved coastal management program under the CZMA, came about in response to offshore renewable energy, and is another excellent example of ocean planning being successfully implemented. Lastly, the Commonwealth of Virginia, also supported by grants issued by NOAA under the CZMA, has emphasized its plans to establish a Virginia Ocean Planning Committee that will engage stakeholders to “develop or improve ocean management policies, identify additional potential offshore wind lease and aquaculture areas, safeguard important fishing areas, integrate marine mammal/sea turtle conservation, address ocean acidification and other climate impacts, and minimize use conflicts.”

While setting and managing stakeholder expectations has and always will be a challenge, some states have shown that it is possible for parties to settle their differences and come to an agreement that is best for their constituents and society as a whole. The increased availability of information has made it more feasible for ocean planning committees to better understand the wants and needs of all maritime stakeholders and to create plans that minimize use conflicts and maximize their synergies.

Concluding Remarks

The hard truth is: offshore wind will continue to face challenges as the industry seeks to meet its 2030 goals. The ocean continues to be at risk of unsustainable disruption due to the increased demand from each new marine stakeholder along with a rising human population. That being said, there are several reasons to maintain a positive outlook. Some states have shown that successful ocean planning can mitigate many offshore conflicts. There is formal government support promising regional partnerships over $10 million a year. In addition, more public data is readily available and easily understandable for the states, marine stakeholders, and local municipalities to utilize in making sound planning decisions. Right now, the United States is in a better position than any time in history to take the first steps to protect our oceans from unstable ecological and spatial disarray, and to sustainably optimize their potential.