A number of public speakers at an offshore wind energy impact analysis scoping meeting said a full environmental impact statement should be prepared before the federal government leases tracts in an area northwest of Morro Bay.
But officials with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said a full EIS can’t be conducted on the effects of wind turbine installation and operation in the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area until leaseholders propose specific projects that can be analyzed.
Located about 20 miles west of San Simeon, the Morro Bay area encompasses 376 square miles of ocean that officials say could support enough wind turbines to generate 3 gigawatts of electricity.
The comments came Wednesday morning at the second of two virtual meetings to help define what should be considered in an environmental analysis of activities that will determine the characteristics and suitability of the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.
Lisa Gilbane, chief of the Environmental Analysis Section of the bureau’s Pacific Region, said the public input is important and noted sections have already been removed from the area as a result of comments made at the first scoping meeting Dec. 1.
Once the environmental analysis is completed, the bureau will conduct the lease auction, which will combine the Morro Bay area with the Humbolt Wind Energy Area west of Eureka and is expected to take place this fall, said Sara Guiltinan, a renewable energy specialist with the BOEM Pacific Region.
But that’s all just the first phase of a long process.
“From where we are today, it will be several years before we see steel in the water,” Guiltinan said.
Companies awarded leases will have to submit a site assessment plan for approval, then will have five years to conduct the assessment that could include the installation of meteorological buoys, taking core samples and conducting biological, archeological, geological and geophysical surveys.
Guiltinan said the number of turbines, their locations, how they will be anchored and other specifics won’t be known until after that, when the companies submit their plans for construction and installation.
That’s when the full environmental impact statement will be prepared, but those who spoke at the meeting said that’s not soon enough.
Public wants more analysis
“It seems that BOEM is prepared to lease first and ask questions later,” said Larry Thevik, president of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association. “We expect the areas proposed for wind energy will end up exclusion zones.”
Excluding fishermen from the wind energy areas requires that a full EIS be conducted early, Thevik said.
Kate Kelly from Defenders of Wildlife said the National Environmental Protection Act requires an analysis as soon as it can be done, and issuing leases will have impacts that should be evaluated along with the other activities.
“It can’t be separated,” she said. “It’s all part of the same process.”
Mike Okoniewski with the West Coast Pelagic Group pointed out there doesn’t appear to be any triggers that would prevent a lease from moving forward.
“I don’t see what value the environmental assessment as it’s structured now would have,” Okoniewski said. “In fact, it could lead to false conclusions.”
Norbert Dall with the Coast of California Project said electrification is consistent with environmental preservation, but the environmental assessment is insufficient to inform the public and comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and California Environmental Quality Act.
Paul Hundal said any environmental analysis should compare a project to the alternative, which he said in this case is offshore oil spills, and the offshore energy areas should be looked at as protected areas to provide a refuge for fish and reduce depletion of ocean resources.
But Shari Hafer, speaking on behalf of her husband, Tom, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, disagreed that fishermen are exploiting the ocean and pointed out California already has 27 marine protection areas.
“One of the biggest enemies right now is industrialization of the ocean,” she said, adding the offshore energy areas are near historical fishing ports where the amount of fish landed each year could be reduced by the impact of the turbines.
She noted the loss of the commercial fishing industry at Morro Bay and Port San Luis could mean a loss of $8.75 million in revenue from fishing, and mitigation for fishermen should be included in the site assessment.
Claudia Harmon Worthen of Beautify Cambria and the Dark Sky Commission worried about the impact five lights per turbine unit would have on the night sky and subsequently on coastal property values.
She also noted Cambria is one of only three locations on the coast for native Monterey pines, which are highly dependent on fog to survive.
“The fog is what keeps our pines alive during the summer,” she said, adding that wind turbines can break up and reduce the amount of fog, and that needs to be analyzed.