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Understanding the impact of Federal regulation on offshore wind farms

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Before joining us in 2007, our colleague Rear Admiral (ret) Sam De Bow was director of Marine & Aviation Operations at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As a result of Sam's career leadership, NOAA became a leader in the use of GPS, high-resolution side scan sonar and shallow water multi-beam systems to survey the sea floor.

Recently, a reporter reached out to Sam to discuss the Biden Administration’s efforts to promote offshore wind farms and how Federal regulations are likely to affect the Biden Administration’s push for offshore wind farm electrical generation. What follows are some of Sam’s comments from that interview:

The U.S. is second in the world in electricity production through wind power but in offshore wind power, our production is negligible. As I see it, many issues have stymied U.S. offshore wind farm deployment. Environmental opposition is clearly an issue as is our lack of certain equipment that’s vital to offshore wind production deployment.

But probably the biggest reason, which I saw firsthand during my years at NOAA, is the incredible complexity of securing Federal approval from multiple agencies. Look at all the agencies involved in an offshore wind farm proposal:

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

· National Marine Fisheries Service

U.S. Coast Guard

Department of Defense

· U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

· U.S. Navy

Department of Energy

· Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Wind Program

Department of the Interior

· Federal Aviation Administration

· The US Fish & Wildlife Service

Environmental Protection Agency

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

These agencies have various “permitting duties” and as I saw firsthand, all of them have to be satisfied before a project can secure its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) approval. The 5-turbine Block Island Wind Farm proposal off Rhode Island took about 7 years to complete from conceptual design to full operations.

In addition, States are involved through their coastal and marine planning laws.

Among many complexities, regulators will need to review detailed geophysical surveys of the ocean floor to determine necessary turbine support and the wind farm’s impact on marine life. That was a key focus of my time at NOAA. The impact, if any, on commercial fishing and marine mammals is also a key issue.

In addition, even a small wind farm requires extensive support including steel towers, massive turbines, cables, and on-shore station(s) maintain and process the generated power. To build and service the wind farm, you need a variety of vessels and all of these must be compliant with the Jones Act. That’s another source of regulation. Another crucial issue is the wind farm’s likely impact on migratory marine birds. I was involved in extensive research over all of these issues leading up to the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm.

America, from the Great Plains to the North Carolina to Maine coastline, is said to have the potential to become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power.” In addition, the Biden Administration has clearly signaled a desire to encourage more offshore wind farms via a timely and predictable permitting regime. That said, regulations will always govern the pace of advancement and developers must adhere to proper procedures. Otherwise, even the most viable proposals will get bogged down or face lengthy court delays.

Sam De Bow

Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2007, Rear Admiral (ret) Sam De Bow is an expert in the complexities of seafloor mapping as well as Federal and state ocean and maritime regulation.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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