How fishermen could thwart Cuomo’s offshore wind master plan

Windfarms off the coast of long island
Windfarms off the coast of long island
Photo illustration/Guillaume Federighi

How fishermen could thwart Cuomo’s offshore wind master plan

A federal lawsuit may be the last best shot to save their livelihoods.
April 15, 2018

Sea monsters haunt the dreams of scallop fishermen.

In the mist off New England’s coast, towering alien monoliths pierce the surging waters, soaring 600 to 850 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of these titans, rising up to 200 feet taller than Trump Tower, chop the air with massive blades that are taller than Albany’s Capitol building.

Offshore wind turbines like these, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says, are a critical part of his clean energy mandate to generate 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable energy. But those humble fishermen are threatening to derail the governor’s goals with a federal lawsuit they believe is their last best shot to save their livelihoods.

The effort to build these offshore towers puts Cuomo in an uneasy alliance with an appointee of President Donald Trump, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is also pushing to develop wind energy projects in the waters off New York’s coast.

The Long Island Power Authority already approved a power-purchase agreement last year to buy 90 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 average homes with 15 turbines from the future South Fork Wind Farm, 30 miles east of Montauk. “Steel in the water,” as industry lingo goes, is expected by 2020.

But another developer has leased a 125-square-mile arrowhead-shaped swath of ocean floor about a dozen miles south of Long Beach, dubbing the planned project Empire Wind. This poses an imperial-sized problem for fishermen because the area is home to rich scallop beds where millions of dollars worth of seafood is caught every year. Pile driving, jet-assisted plowing and finally fixing the mammoth wind turbines to the ocean floor will alter the ecosystem and destroy the creature’s natural habitat, fishermen say. In turn, fishermen will be pushed further afield from one of the most active scalloping grounds in the ocean, burdening the bigger scallop boats and, they fear, bankrupting the smaller ones.

Of course, what fishermen see as a nightmare, Cuomo has staked out as his renewable energy dream.

“We’re going to lead the nation with the most ambitious wind program in the country. By 2030, we will build 2.4 gigawatts of power from offshore wind,” enough to power 1.2 million homes, Cuomo said in March alongside former Vice President Al Gore, who lauded the goal as “unprecedented.”

“Coal is receding. Now gas is being outcompeted in the marketplace by renewables,” Gore said. “This is the future.”

The envisioned 2.4 gigawatts would provide 13 percent of Long Island’s and New York City’s electricity needs, according to a spokesperson from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The first 800 megawatts would come with a $3.8 billion price tag – and that’s just the beginning, as officials say offshore wind energy development will likely grow from there. New York plans to pour enough capital into offshore wind to ensure that it has enough scale to reduce costs and become a hub for U.S. offshore wind development, according to a NYSERDA white paper.

“I have people that have nothing to lose and everything to gain and they tell me, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be great.’” – Chris Scola, scallop fisherman

That dream is accelerating toward reality. Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, officials have leased 13 swaths of seafloor for wind power development, dutifully following an Obama-era mandate to capture this abundant source of renewable energy. Now, as technology has improved and development costs have dropped, project planning has surged and money is pouring in.

Earlier this month, hundreds of developers, many from the well-developed wind energy industry in Europe, attended the United States’ largest technical wind power conference, which was held in Princeton, New Jersey. Dozens of public officials, including Zinke, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and NYSERDA President and CEO Alicia Barton, expounded on how to best seize the offshore opportunities.

Under Cuomo, New York has played a leading role in selecting the offshore areas for wind development, overseeing 20 research studies, working closely with BOEM and conducting “unprecedented outreach” to stakeholders, Doreen Harris, NYSERDA’s director of large-scale renewables, told City & State. “Obviously, this becomes a federal process at this point,” Harris said. “But we believe New York’s work provides the solid foundation for areas that are the most favorable.”

Indeed, after NYSERDA requested that BOEM open vast tracts of seafloor for leasing, Zinke told attendees at the April wind power conference that BOEM was opening an additional 2,711 square miles for potential wind farm development, more than 20 times larger than the Empire Wind lease area in the New York Bight, a broad expanse of ocean south of Long Island and east of New Jersey. It seemed to be everything NYSERDA asked for and more. The decision opens the possibility of rows and rows of wind turbines the height of skyscrapers plotted out in an area twice the size of Long Island.

There’s just one scallop-sized problem standing in the way.

The combined 2,836 square miles where BOEM is either leasing or seeking information and nominations for commercial wind leases is worth hundreds of millions – if not billions – of dollars in revenue to the scallop industry over the life of a 25-year wind lease, the scallopers’ lawyers say. The impact on the scallop fisheries would be far worse than they first feared, if those areas are developed.

“It puts an exclamation mark on all our concerns,” said David Frulla, the lead lawyer on the scallopers’ lawsuit. “We’re not trying to stop offshore wind. It is just that this is right at the heart of where the fishing is.”

The Fisheries Survival Fund, an advocacy group that represents the scallopers’ interests in their lawsuit against BOEM, is arguing that the federal offshore wind leasing procedure gave away some of the most productive scallop beds in the world and failed to evaluate alternative options appropriately.

In particular, they are rebelling against the Empire Wind project. The envisioned 194 towers whirling above the waves would make it impossible to safely fish there, they say.

The problem, lawyers for the fishermen argue, is that the project originated from an “unsolicited lease request” from a coalition of New York state agencies and power companies in 2011, and the ensuing process never considered alternative locations or gave weight to fishermen’s use of the ocean floor. In essence, New York asked for a swath of ocean floor and the federal government gave it to them, ignoring the protests of the fishermen.

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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola on a boat in the ocean
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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola on a boat in the ocean
Title Text: 
Scallop fisherman Chris Scola.
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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola.
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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola on a boat in the ocean
Image Credit: 
Frank G. Runyeon

An internal BOEM memo laid out the fishermen’s grievances in great detail. It pointed out that BOEM removed an area off Rhode Island and Massachusetts from consideration for development due to its “high fishing value,” then noted that the calculated value of the Empire Wind area is worth a total of $21.5 million over six years – three times as valuable per square kilometer as the area removed from consideration. Nevertheless, the BOEM director reasoned that those concerns could be addressed later. The fishermen disagreed and say the lawsuit is their only hope.

An injunction request to halt the process altogether failed last year. But the judge allowed the case to continue, and the fishermen have moved to schedule oral arguments for this month.

Philip E. Karmel, a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner who has analyzed the case, said that if the scallopers win, the impact will depend on what remediation the judge orders. “The case could potentially be quite important if the court holds that BOEM’s leasing procedures do not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act,” he said. “That would require a new set of leasing procedures and it could result in delays in the rollout of offshore wind turbines.”

At the wind conference in New Jersey, tensions were palpable during a “Commercial Fishing and Offshore Wind” panel with federal, state, wind power industry and fishing representatives. Brian Hooker, a marine biologist for BOEM, repeatedly said that the agency was open to comments from the fishing industry.

Scot Mackey, a representative for the Garden State Seafood Association, said communication between the fishing community and state and federal authorities is “a mess.”

“Scot, I do look forward to your comment on that request for feedback,” Hooker responded.

“Just so you know, Brian, some folks in the industry have provided comments back along those lines and we basically didn’t get anything back,” Mackey said. “We can’t just send it over and hear nothing.”

After the panel, Hooker acknowledged that the issue is “definitely a concern.” But he told City & State that there have been several cases in which some parts of wind energy areas had been removed due to concerns about animal habitat, shipping and even scalloping.

Other wind projects have been stymied by lengthy legal battles. Cape Wind, a $2.6 billion project envisioned for the shallow waters between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, met stiff resistance from a coalition that included the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and was spearheaded by William Koch, who built a fortune in the fossil fuels industry. After years of court challenges, Cape Wind never materialized.

But Fisheries Survival Fund says it has no Kennedy or Koch brother supporting them and won’t be getting any backup from oil and gas companies either. “I’m not expecting them to come in and be the white knight and defeat offshore wind for us,” laughed Andrew Minkiewicz, another lawyer for the scallopers. “I don’t see that one happening.”

In fact, it’s a fossil fuel company that plans to build Empire Wind – Statoil, the Norwegian oil and gas conglomerate. Players across the energy sector are entering the renewable energy market just as sunny financial forecasts have encouraged investment from major financial firms.

Citibank, General Electric Co. and the hedge fund D. E. Shaw & Co. bankrolled Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine project off Block Island, Rhode Island, with the country’s first and only offshore wind turbines.

The Block Island project is a collaboration between GE and Deepwater Wind, which is considered a groundbreaking wind energy company and it holds several offshore leases.

GE has made several acquisitions to build its wind energy business, including Alstom, a French company, and its offshore Block Island turbines. GE also bought Enron Wind's onshore wind assets during Enron Corp.’s bankruptcy proceedings, following the scandal that led to executives’ convictions for fraud, conspiracy and insider trading. Brian Redmond, a current Deepwater board member, was a managing director at Enron and received what a Senate Finance Committee investigation listed as a $300,000 “pre-bankruptcy bonus.” Redmond was never accused of any wrongdoing. Then, there are the questions raised about campaign contributions to Cuomo by Deepwater-linked individuals.

But Deepwater Wind emphasized that it is separate from GE and has “no relationship with Enron.” “We are owned principally, and always have been, by our major investor D.E. Shaw,” a Deepwater Wind representative said.  

Surveying these developers and financiers, fishermen harbor deep skepticism about wind power companies’ altruistic marketing slogans about clean, green, renewable energy.

“Statoil is not doing this to save the Earth. They’re doing it because it’s a profitable venture,” Minkiewicz said. “If someone is going to give away money to go do this, then they’ll take your money. They’re chasing the buck and they’re smart to diversify.”

Fishermen see these wind turbines as a sort of Odyssean challenge. Just as the ancient Greek mariner and his men were distracted by the swirling waters of one sea monster only to be devoured by another, fishermen fear the public’s eyes are too fixed on the promised disaster of climate change to see the drawbacks of offshore wind power. As politicians pour resources into combating rising seas by constructing titanic offshore wind turbines, New England’s fishermen may be pushed out by other, more familiar foes – power-hungry energy companies and foreigners looking to cash in on their turf.

Prior to the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976, Asian and European fishing boats could drag their nets within sight of U.S. land, competing with American fishermen and decimating fish populations. The law staked claim to U.S. waters from three to 200 nautical miles off the coast as an “exclusive economic zone” for U.S. commercial fishing and led to a series of regulations that successfully warded off foreign trawlers and boosted fish populations. It also made commercial fishing among the most heavily regulated industries in the country.

“It’s our exclusive economic zone,” said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association in Montauk, New York. “So, why would our federal government be placing steel in the water, literally creating a factory floor of our ocean when the goal of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is to grow our domestic seafood industry? We’re at a 92 percent import rate right now.”

It’s true that the vast majority of fish Americans eat is imported, but there is a notable exception: sea scallops. There’s a 2-to-1 ratio of domestic to foreign-caught scallops that end up on our plates, most of which come from the waters between Maryland and Maine, according to the American Scallop Association. If you’re dining on that mollusk’s tasty adductor muscle, there is a good chance that a Northeasterner like Chris Scola shucked that scallop for you.

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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola throwing a scallop off of a boat in the ocean
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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola throwing a scallop off of a boat in the ocean
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Scallop fisherman Chris Scola on a boat in the ocean
Image Credit: 
Frank G. Runyeon

One morning in early April, Scola piloted his 39-foot scallop dredging boat out of the port at Montauk at the easternmost tip of Long Island. The waves pitched the Rock & Roll III, dipping its rails into the Atlantic, as it steamed 10 miles south, out to sea. “This is my sanctuary,” he said.

The bearded 44-year-old captain pointed out the Block Island wind farm, like a mirage on the hazy horizon, 12 miles to the northeast.

If Cuomo achieves his dream, Scola will have to steer clear of the steel giants, he said, because fishing among them isn’t worth the risk. Striking one could sink him. But more likely, his dredging gear could get caught on sunken infrastructure and destroy his equipment or even capsize his boat. There are enough hidden obstacles beneath the waves without having to worry about electrified undersea cables running from the turbines to the mainland, he said. One of the wind energy areas proposed this month, Fairways North, covers his regular fishing grounds – where he was fishing that day. Undersea cables from Deepwater Wind’s planned South Fork Wind Farm project would cut right through his territory too.

“I have people that have nothing to lose and everything to gain and they tell me, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be great. You’re worrying over nothing. It’s for the greater good.’ Which I don’t believe, by the way,” Scola said.

He was working alone that day. A crewman ditched him at the last moment. But Scola can’t afford to miss too many fair weather fishing days with two children at home. And so, he prepared to swing the nearly 1-ton iron dredge off the back of the boat by himself, using the rhythm of waves.

As the boat pitched back and forth, Scola clambered between the controls raising the mass of metal and the stern, where he shoved against the dredge that hung off the back of the boat. Finally, with a clank and a splash, the chains plunged to the gravelly bottom, 100 feet below.

Commercial fishing is already among the most dangerous jobs in America. Scalloping is the most deadly kind of fishing in the Atlantic. Never mind that the fertile fishing grounds of the New York Bight have historically been a dumping ground for dredging spoils, industrial waste, sewage sludge and thousands of tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin, VX, and unexploded munitions. Every so often, scallopers haul a bomb onboard.

But that can’t be helped. Scola can only guess what he will pull out of the waves.

“There’s nobody doing this who’s in it for the money. Too many years where you barely scrape by.” – Chris Scola, scallop fisherman

The rusty wire tethered to the dredge vibrated like a cello string. “Usually means a scallop bed,” Scola hollered against the wind. A dozen minutes later, the machinery whined as he winched up his haul. Hundreds of glistening shells crashed onto the swaying deck. Soon, he was shucking scallop meat from the shells with a broad grin. That first pass landed 43 pounds of meat, a good tow on a sunny day. But even when things feel easy, he said, “A lot can go wrong, really fast.”

But what keeps Scola up at night is the slow-moving threat from wind turbines. He fears the mammoth structures will usurp and fundamentally alter the scallops’ natural habitat: the flat, sandy expanse in the open Mid-Atlantic ocean.

While some fish like sea bass, striped bass and porgies seek out undersea structures, as developers like Deepwater Wind have pointed out, what’s good for some sea creatures may be bad news for scallops and the fishermen who rely on them.

“Say they build the Empire Wind and that pushes another 50 boats that usually fish down there and it puts them down by me. … It would definitely put me out of business,” Scola said. Larger boats might be able to fish further afield, he explained, but his dredging boat can only venture so far from port. He couldn’t compete.

“Basically, we’re being asked to be the guinea pig in all this and, well, I’m not too keen on being a guinea pig,” Scola said with a hearty laugh. But then, he quietly added, “Especially when my livelihood and my family’s future is being put at stake.”

Scalloping supports far more than small operators like Scola. Scallops are among the most valuable seafood, selling for $11 per pound at the dock in Montauk that day and perhaps $20 for just a few ounces prepared in a restaurant. With more than 50 million pounds of sea scallop meat caught commercially in the U.S. over the past 12 months, you can begin to understand how the larger domestic seafood industry supports nearly 750,000 jobs and makes $50 billion in sales, as federal regulators estimate. New York’s commercial fishing and seafood industry employed 2,854 people in 2014, generating $94.4 million in wages.

For fishermen, the pay is unpredictable for the perilous work they do. On the big boats, a scallop deckhand might make $30,000 or $150,000, depending on the year. The captain, maybe $100,000 to $300,000. Everyone takes a cut, and at the end of the day, it often doesn’t add up to a lucrative venture. Scola, a small operator, made $50,000 in take-home pay last year, but another year it was just $16,000.

“There’s nobody doing this who’s in it for the money,” Scola said. “Too many years where you barely scrape by.”

Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact on birds, bats and the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Unfortunately, a common theme in scientific studies, panel discussions and government white papers is that there is a serious lack of information about what will happen to the environment if you install and operate wind farms offshore for decades at a time. And so there is little agreement about how to balance those concerns with the imperative to build and develop clean energy. The technology is there, the political will is there, and now the money is there; and so they build, all parties uncertain about what the consequences may be. If all goes according to the New York State Offshore Wind Master Plan, there will be many hundreds of towering turbines off New York’s shores by 2030.

Given the pending lawsuit that threatens to upend Statoil’s Empire Wind project and derail Cuomo’s master plan, City & State posed a question to wind developers at the conference: What should government do to improve the process and avoid such challenges? Where are the flaws in the process?

There was a nervous chuckle and a moment of uncomfortable shifting in seats, perhaps because several BOEM and NYSERDA officials were in the room. Stephanie Wilson, manager of permitting and environmental affairs for Deepwater Wind, spoke up.

Fishermen should be engaged early on and developers should seek to produce the missing science to help get answers to those environmental questions, Wilson said. “At the end of the day, it’s hard to please everybody,” she said. “Things are going to get challenged. It’s just making sure that as we develop these projects, the decisions that we’re making are fully vetted and understood so we can stand on them, as opposed to making more –” she paused. “Whimsical decisions.”

Most agree – even scallop fishermen – that there is a need to move away from energy produced by burning fossil fuels, which is clearly damaging to the environment and a leading contributor to climate change. Those who may appear to be the enemies of offshore wind development, as the scallop fishermen have often been framed, are not anti-wind energy, but they urge caution that we not repeat the same mistakes of the past by rushing headlong into a new energy source without understanding what it may cost us.

“Working on a boat is all I’ve ever done. It says ‘commercial fisherman’ on every tax return,” Scola said, as he considered what work he might do if he couldn’t fish.

“It’s 30 years,” he said, looking away. “It’s no exaggeration to say it would rip my soul out.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Deepwater Wind was formerly named Enron Wind. In fact, it was GE, not Deepwater Wind, that built a wind power business through several acquisitions, including Enron Wind’s onshore wind assets and, more recently, offshore wind assets acquired from the French company Alstom. Deepwater Wind is a partner with GE on the Block Island offshore wind project. The lead image was also incorrectly attributed to Deepwater Wind. 

Scallop fisherman Chris Scola pilots his 39-foot dredging boat out of the port at Montauk, steaming 10 miles out to sea. The bearded 44-year-old captain says if Gov. Andrew Cuomo achieves his dream of creating 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind energy, fishermen will have to steer clear of any giant turbines placed on top of their rich scallop beds. Scallopers see offshore wind development as a threat to their livelihoods and are suing the federal government to protect their fishery, potentially throwing a wrench in Cuomo’s master plan.

Read the full story. 

Scallop fisherman Chris Scola
Scallop fisherman Chris Scola
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  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola on a boat
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola
  • Scallop fishing equipment
  • Scallop fishing equipment
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola standing next to fishing equipment
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola digging through a pile of scallops
  • A scallop up close
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola showing his scallops
  • Scallops up close
  • An opened scallop
  • Scallop fisherman Chris Scola throwing a scallop
  • A boat in the distance
  • A boat at the dock
Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is a freelance investigative reporter in New York City.
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