California Offshore Wind Gains Momentum with Two Key Milestones in April

April 15, 2022

Downey Brand Energy Publication

In early April there were two major leaps forward in offshore wind development in California. On April 6, 2022, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), a bureau within the U.S. Interior Department, released a Draft Environmental Assessment for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area (WEA) off California’s Central Coast. The next day, the California Coastal Commission removed a key barrier to the first offshore wind development, voting unanimously to conditionally concur with BOEM’s federal consistency determination that proposed leasing and lease activities within the Humboldt WEA off California’s Northern Coast are consistent with the California Coastal Management Program (CCMP).

For context related to the Commission’s consistency determination, the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (CZMA) requires all federal agency activities (including federal development projects, permits and licenses, and assistance to state and local governments) affecting the Coastal Zone be consistent with the enforceable policies of the CCMP. When a federal agency seeks to undertake an activity or development project that affects the Coastal Zone, it prepares a consistency determination. The consistency determination includes an analysis of the proposed action with regard to the relevant enforceable polices of the CCMP and concludes whether the proposed activity will be undertaken in a manner consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the CCMP. The Commission reviews the consistency determination and may concur, conditionally concur, or object.

Commission staff made clear at last week’s meeting and in the staff report that the Commission views this consistency determination as an opportunity to lay a foundation for the Commission’s role in the process. With its concurrence, the Commission approved seven conditions aimed at mitigating the impacts of surveys and site assessment activities to marine resources, commercial fishing, environmental justice communities, and tribal and cultural resources. Condition 1 requires BOEM work with Commission staff “to ensure lessees’ survey and sampling and analysis plans are coordinated, consistent, minimize impacts to coastal resources and provide the data and information necessary for analysis of future consistency certifications, as appropriate.” Conditions 2 through 7 address more specific concerns, including avoiding bottom contact (Condition 2); avoiding vessel strikes (Condition 3); ensuring safe navigation through lease areas (Condition 4); engaging with environmental justice communities (Condition 5) and California Native American tribes (Condition 6); and collaborating with local commercial fishing communities (Condition 7). To read the full conditions, see the Commission’s staff report.

Although limited in scope, this vote represents a major first step in offshore wind development in California. The vote clears the way for companies interested in developing offshore wind to begin surveys and site assessment activities in the Humboldt WEA. BOEM anticipates issuing up to three leases as part of the Humboldt WEA lease auction planned for later this year. After BOEM’s lessees complete surveys and site assessment activities, they will submit a Construction and Operations Plan (COP) to develop a lease. The COP will also require a consistency certification from the Commission prior to BOEM approving any future development.

The Humboldt WEA is one of two WEAs planned for federal waters off California’s coast. On April 6, 2022, just one day before the Commission meeting on Humboldt WEA’s consistency determination, BOEM released a Draft Environmental Assessment for the Morro Bay WEA, located approximately 20 miles off San Luis Obispo County. BOEM is currently seeking public comment on the Draft Environmental Assessment until May 6, 2022. During the public comment period BOEM will host two virtual public meetings on April 14 and 19. See BOEM’s Morro Bay Wind Energy Area webpage for more information. BOEM will have to conduct the same CCMP consistency determination process with the Coastal Commission for the Morro Bay WEA. BOEM plans on holding a lease auction for the Humboldt and Morro Bay WEAs together later this year. This will be BOEM’s first offshore wind lease auction in California.

Concurrently, the State Lands Commission is evaluating two applications for floating offshore wind projects in state waters. See the State Lands Commission’s webpage on Offshore Wind Applications in State Waters for more information.

There is still a long road ahead for offshore wind in California. To learn more about the permitting and interconnection considerations for developing offshore wind in California, see Downey Brand’s previous article: Developing Offshore Wind in California – Environmental Permitting and Interconnection Considerations.