Infighting within the administration of US President Donald Trump is delaying the approval of the first major offshore wind project in the United States.
The delays are a setback for President Trump and could threaten the administration's plans to launch a promising new domestic industry.
How the issue is resolved will shape the regulatory blueprint for a growing list of offshore wind developers looking to tap into the growing demand for renewable energy in the United States, but facing objections from fishermen concerned that the turbines will affect to commercial species or hinder fishing.
The agencies are discussing whether the proposal does enough to protect the fishing industry, according to interviews and documents verified by Reuters.
The Trump administration has sought to boost the development of the nascent offshore wind industry by expediting permitting and excavating off-shore areas for leasing, part of its policy to boost domestic energy production and jobs.
Vineyard Wind, a joint venture between Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Incorporated, was scheduled to begin construction this year 23 kilometers off the coast of Massachusetts to serve more than 400,000 homes by 2021, making it the first large-scale offshore wind development in The USA
However, a federal environmental study crucial to its authorization has been repeatedly delayed since April, according to published government schedules, without any public explanation from Trump administration officials. Vineyard Wind has said the delays could threaten the viability of the project.
Documents that have not previously been released show that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) caused the delays by refusing to sign the wind project design, as proposed by the Office of the Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the leading agency in offshore wind energy projects.
Under a 2017 Trump executive order aimed at limiting environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects to two years, federal agencies must request the support of cooperating agencies at three points in the review process, even before issuing the final environmental impact study.
Getting support allows the process to move faster, but not getting it can force a deeper analysis.
NOAA Fisheries Wider Atlantic Regional Administrator Michael Pentony said his agency could not endorse the environmental permit for Vineyard Wind because the project was unable to fully address the concerns of the fishing industry.
For example, he said, the fishing industry had asked for a wider gap between turbines than the 0.75 nautical mile set out in the proposal, and wanted the turbines to be aligned in an east-west orientation, rather than northwest-southeast. He also said that the proposal was based on undefined measures to compensate the fishermen for the possible damage to their livelihoods caused by the wind farm.
The problems “require detailed analysis” that are not currently being done in the study.
In a written response to Mr. Pentony, seen by Reuters, BOEM Director of the Environment William Brown said that the fishing industry's concerns “do not rise to the level that justifies the likely delays and possible failure of this wind project ”.
He added that BOEM could try to issue the environmental permit without the support of the National Marine Fisheries Service: “We hope that, on reflection, NMFS will agree with our conclusion.
"However, if NMFS disagrees, we are prepared to note your non-concurrence in the final EIS (environmental impact statement) and (Record of Decision)," Brown wrote. Three months later, the agencies have yet to resolve their differences.
"At this time, we still cannot reach a point of agreement," NOAA spokesman John Ewald said in an emailed statement last week.
Because Vineyard Wind is the first wind project of its kind to undergo the federal environmental review process, Mr. Ewald said NOAA "wants to ensure that the impacts on ocean resources are fully addressed."
Vineyard Wind said earlier this month that it told federal authorities that it would be "very difficult" to move forward with the project in its current configuration if the environmental permit is not granted within four to six weeks.
The company wants to begin construction soon to secure a federal tax credit that expires next year. The loan is currently worth 12 percent of the project's value.