The US government has struck a light for major offshore wind power development in the Gulf of Mexico with the start of a formal environmental assessment (EA) on a vast swathe of federal waters stretching from Louisiana to the Texas-Mexican border.

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The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency under the Department of Interior charged with managing development in federal waters, announced its intention to prepare a draft EA in anticipation of carving up nearly 30 million acres in the GoM into wind energy areas (WEA) available for leasing for development. The move follows BOEM’s call for interest to assess commercial viability of the same zone.

“The Gulf of Mexico is well-positioned to support a transition to a renewable energy future, as much of the infrastructure already exists to support offshore wind development in the region,” said BOEM Director Amanda Lefton in a statement.

BOEM’s move is the latest signal of the US’ commitment to the offshore wind sector, with the bureau in 2021 opening new expanses of coastal waters to development and promising approvals for 16 projects by 2025 totalling 19GW in capacity, 13GW in 2023 alone.

According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the GoM represents over 32% of the country’s total fixed bottom offshore wind potential, with three of the four states with the most shallow-water offshore wind potential – Texas, Louisiana, and Florida – located here (though Florida is not included in the call area). Modelling by BOEM calculated there was 1.9TW of offshore wind potential in the Gulf’s waters, of which more than 500GW could be commercially developed for electricity generation.

BOEM intends to sell offshore wind leases in the GoM by the end of 2022, according to its report Offshore Wind Leasing Path Forward 2021-2025.

The GoM has a massive offshore wind-ready oil & gas industry, with huge coastal facilities better capable of handling the massive industrial componentry than the smaller, older ports of the US northeast, as well as service vessels aplenty and shipyards to build more. The industry also offers large numbers of trained and experienced offshore energy workers and large demand centers.

“The infrastructure exists to support offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico,” BOEM’s Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Task Force asserted following its inaugural meeting last June. The task force, comprised of members of federal and state government, stated that “the oil & gas industry will most likely lead the way with many of the majors announcing plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050”.

“Early opportunities that may exist” in aiding oil & gas production by powering platforms to extend output while cutting emissions, said BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico regional coordinator Mike Celeta.

Unlike coastal New England and the mid-Atlantic, the GoM has relatively slow wind speeds averaging between 7 meters per second (m/s) to 9m/s, trailing the US average for WEA at over 8-9.5m/s, muting interest in the region. Annual hurricanes – the latest of which, Hurricane Ida which swept across the region last August and knocked out offshore oil & gas production for several weeks – as well as soft soil, are likewise seen as contributing to dampened interest in the play so far.

“None of these challenges are insurmountable, but all will require some additional investment in research, development, and deployment to adapt the technology,” NREL noted in an industry report

The announcement opens BOEM’s scoping period for the EA, in which it opens a 30-day window for public comment to help it identify exclusion areas or areas of sensitivity, resources to be analysed, data on the affected environment, and other issues of concern or interest.

A regional assessment conducted by NREL indicates that a single 600MW offshore wind project in the GOM could generate approximately 4,470 jobs and $445m in economic activity during construction and 150 jobs and $14 million annually in operations and maintenance.

BOEM is also advancing WEAs off the coast of California and today opened comments to the draft EA for 131,840 acres of the Humboldt WEA with 1.5GW of offshore wind capacity, all of it floating due to the deep Pacific coastline.

The GoM draft EA will consider the potential impacts of site assessment plans, including site characterisation activities such as biological, archaeological, or geophysical surveys, the installation of meteorological buoys, and other activities associated with the possibility of issuing wind energy leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

“BOEM’s environmental assessment is an important step to ensure that any development in the region is done responsibly and in a way that avoids, reduces, or mitigates potential impacts to the ocean and to ocean users,” said Lefton.

The EA as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act is basis for lease sales alone and will be superseded by a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyse the specific environmental consequences of the construction and operation plan of any proposed project.

Unlike the EA, which invites public comment at the discretion of the agency, the EIS must be done in consultation with indigenous tribes and appropriate federal, state, and local agencies, and with participation by stakeholders and the public.

The distinction between an EA and an EIS was raised at BOEM’s public hearing on the proposed Morro Bay WEA off California’s central coast in January in which many of the commenters requested that BOEM start the leasing process with a full-blown EIS.

A lawsuit against the Vineyard Wind by the Texas Public Policy Foundation cites the lack of comprehensive EIS at the start of the leasing process as cause to void the lease sale and stop the project.

Litigation is fast becoming an issue for the nascent industry, with the tally of lawsuits filed against Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first commercial scale project to go to construction, seeking to halt the project reaching four, and with the US’s second approved project, South Fork, likewise in the crosshairs for litigation.

The US Biden administration is targeting a “national goal” of having 30GW of offshore wind capacity online by 2030 and BOEM has ramped up its permitting approvals to reach that objective.

The Department of Interior has set a goal of having 12.5GW of offshore wind online by 2025. A report by American Clean Power released recently forecasts between 23GW and 40GW of offshore wind capacity spurring $120bn in economic investment resulting from development of these proposed areas.