Who thought we’d miss Ryan Zinke?
President Trump’s former interior secretary, who left office last winter dogged by a pack of ethical questions, got at least one thing right: He supported swift action to develop offshore wind energy in the United States.
Now his successor, David Bernhardt, is slow-walking a critical federal permit and could bring a groundbreaking Massachusetts project to a screeching halt. Caution is one thing, but Bernhardt ought to resolve his doubts soon, before he delivers a major setback to a nascent industry.
Last year, the state’s major utilities picked Vineyard Wind to develop what would be the nation’s first industrial-scale wind farm. The 84-turbine facility is supposed to start generating electricity by 2022. That’s an ambitious target, but the company says it had been on track to meet that deadline.
Until now. A major problem surfaced earlier this month, when, without warning, the department abandoned a previously announced timetable by failing to finish a required environmental review.
That set off alarm bells in the Commonwealth, where creating an offshore wind industry has been a major economic and climate-mitigation goal. According to the company, if it doesn’t receive the permit in the next three to five weeks, it will be “very challenging to move forward.”
An extra few weeks might not seem like a big deal, but according to the company a delay could wreck its tight construction schedule. For instance, to construct the platforms for offshore wind turbines, the company booked the use of a specialized vessel used by the offshore oil and gas industry. The ship’s time is reserved years in advance, and there are few other American-flagged vessels the company could use instead (federal law requires use of an American ship). If Vineyard Wind misses its window it’ll have to start from scratch.
Apart from logistics, there’s also the discouraging message the Interior Department would be sending if it sabotages Vineyard Wind. Investors need regulatory certainty, not abrupt policy shifts.
The Interior Department provided no explanation for the delay, but has pointed out that it’s not legally required to make a decision until March 2020. The department did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe. Some fishing groups have pressed for more distance between the turbines, but the company says it’s not feasible to change its plans so late in the permitting process.
It’d be ironic for an administration that’s usually intent on dismantling environmental protections and speeding the construction of energy infrastructure to drag out the review of Vineyard Wind. Worse, it’d undermine the goals this administration professes to support. The “men and women who construct wind turbines in American waters in the years to come will continue to set our nation toward clean energy dominance,” Zinke wrote in these pages last year. Hopefully, Bernhardt will agree — and let Vineyard Wind move forward on schedule.