By Nichola Groom
July 28 (Reuters) - The Biden administration is considering ways to ensure the U.S. commercial fishing industry is paid for any losses it incurs from the planned expansion of offshore wind power in the Atlantic Ocean, according to state and federal officials involved in the matter.
Discussions between state and federal officials, which participants described as being at a very early stage, are aimed at addressing the top threat to President Joe Biden's efforts to grow offshore wind - a centerpiece of his clean energy agenda to fight climate change.
Commercial fishing fleets have vehemently opposed offshore wind projects, labeling them a significant threat to catches of crucial stocks including scallops, clams, squid and lobsters, by interfering with navigation and altering ecosystems.
That opposition has contributed to delays in permitting the nation's first commercial-scale projects and is among the reasons the U.S. has lagged Europe in offshore wind development. Minimizing those conflicts could speed the lengthy federal permitting process as Biden seeks to add 30 gigawatts of offshore wind to the nation's waters in just nine years.
U.S. government researchers estimate that offshore wind projects could displace some commercial fisheries by as much as a quarter.
The administration's new effort was prompted in part by a letter to Biden from nine coastal states last month urging the federal government to lead the way in crafting "mitigation frameworks for demonstrated negative impacts" on fisheries from offshore wind projects, according to the officials.
"Building on the request made in the multi-state Governor's letter, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has had preliminary discussions with counterparts in other signatory states on engaging the federal government to advance an equitable mitigation framework for potential impacts to the commercial fishing industry from offshore wind projects," the state said in an emailed statement. "While in early stages of development, NJDEP anticipates more to be shared in the coming months."
The United States has yet to install a major offshore wind farm, yet developers pursuing those projects have spent years hashing out potential fishing industry compensation schemes with states and the fleets. Until now, the federal government has not pursued a federal approach.
Brian Hooker, a marine biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), said at a June meeting of a regional fishery management body that "compensatory mitigation is something that we're taking a very serious look at" and cited the June letter from states as a reason, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.
The June 4 letter to Biden was signed by the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland and New Hampshire - all states with sizable fishing fleets.
BOEM officials declined further comment.
AVOID, MINIMIZE OR COMPENSATE
It remained unclear what authority BOEM has to require or oversee payouts for the fishing industry. Representatives of both the fishing and offshore wind industries said the federal permitting process could incorporate such a program during evaluation of economic and environmental impacts.
The National Environmental Policy Act, for example, requires projects on federal property to avoid, minimize or compensate for their impacts.
Under such an approach, offshore wind developers would set aside funds to compensate fishing fleets for damage.
Industry representatives said they were broadly supportive of a standardized federal program.
"We can see a benefit to a more regional approach to mitigation, but at the same time, we want to continue to engage with all the stakeholders including state and federal agencies, fishermen, and other developers as the conversation evolves to ensure the best outcome," Vineyard Wind, which is developing the first major U.S. offshore wind farm, said in a statement.
Vineyard Wind is a joint venture between Avangrid Inc and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. The company has established more than $40 million in funds for fishers, primarily in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
U.S. offshore wind development so far is primarily focused in the Northeast, a center of the U.S. commercial fishing industry.
This year the Biden administration provided the first federal permit to a large offshore wind project to Vineyard Wind, off the coast of Massachusetts.
This year, members of Rhode Island's fishing industry protested developer Orsted over a proposed wind farm 19 miles southeast of Block Island. Orsted agreed to downsize the planned project and pay a $5.2 million lump sum to cover impacts to the industry, a sum the fishing industry said was too small.
The Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fishing industry group, said the talks for a federal approach were encouraging, but complained that so far the administration has not included fishing industry representatives in the discussions.
"You don't decide what's going to work for an impacted community by thinking about it without them there and then telling them what's going to work for them," said Annie Hawkins, the group's executive director. (Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.