Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island is the first offshore commercial wind farm in the United States. (Photo: USW District 4, Flickr CC)
On October 18th, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who has been embroiled in ethics allegations, announced leasing auctions beginning December 13th for offshore wind power in Massachusetts, with offshore locations in California and Rhode Island to follow in the near future. Joe Romm, a former Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary in the Clinton Administration, tells Host Steve Curwood about the opportunities and challenges for wind power on the continental shelf.
CURWOOD: One of the many things environmental groups are hoping for with a Democratic House is more oversight of alleged corruption in the Trump Administration.
And on that list is the Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. Mr. Zinke is now subject to more than a dozen different investigations concerning his actions as head of Interior. Bobby McEnaney, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the allegations run from relatively minor to deeply troubling.
McENANEY: There have been issues of him forcing employees to walk his dog. He took a personal trip to Greece and Turkey with his wife and there was a security detail that was afforded to him, which tax payers end up paying for. There was a boat trip to the Channel Islands where he took political donors along with him and didn’t inform the Department of Interior that there were associations with his political backers.
CURWOOD: The NRDC’s McEnaney worries that Secretary Zinke is serving at the behest of industry groups he’s supposed to regulate, and not the American people.
McENANEY: What we see with Ryan Zinke and this administration is an effort to suit the oil and gas and other industry developers. He has said directly to oil and gas developers at conferences, “I serve you. I am here for you.”
CURWOOD: The Trump administration recently reduced two national monuments in Utah. Secretary Zinke is being investigated for his role in that decision which also happens to be a boon for one of his political allies, a uranium mining company. And then there’s the Arctic…
McENANEY: We’ve seen a rush to open up oil and gas resources in Alaska and there are a number of oil and gas lobbyists who used to work on that issue who now basically make the decision at the Department of Interior on whether or not oil and gas is developed in Alaska or in other parts.
CURWOOD: While Secretary Zinke has his ethical troubles there have been positive reactions to his announcement in October of offshore wind initiatives. He laid out the next steps in auctioning offshore wind leases in Massachusetts and California, as well as a review of the proposed offshore wind project off the coast of Rhode Island.
Secretary Zinke declared that “harnessing this renewable resource is a big part of the Trump Administration's Made in America energy strategy.” Here to talk more about the announcement is Joseph Romm, a former deputy assistant energy secretary in the Clinton Administration and founder of ClimateProgress.org. Joe, thanks for being here today!
ROMM: Thanks for having me on.
CURWOOD: Folks were a little surprised to see that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to start leasing space for offshore wind. In fact, has set a date, December 13, for off of Massachusetts. What's going on with the Department of Interior and its offshore wind projects?
ROMM: Well, certainly it's a surprise in the sense that the Trump administration has been pretty anti-renewable energy and pro-coal and dirty energy, but Zinke is from Montana and they have a lot of wind power up there, and he seems to understand that wind power is the fastest growing form of clean energy in this country and around the world. So, he is supporting offshore wind, giving out leases off of Massachusetts and off of the state of California.
CURWOOD: Now, Secretary Zinke announced actual leasing dates off of Massachusetts. There have been big fights in Massachusetts about offshore wind power. Why does the Secretary of Interior think that there won't be push back from the public about these?
ROMM: In the case of Massachusetts, I think these leases are in a different area than the Cape Wind project, and I think the technology has improved greatly so that many of the concerns about offshore wind are decreasing. And at the same time, the economic benefit of it has been increasing because the costs have just been dropping.
CURWOOD: Now, I understand that California is in the process of working with the Department of Interior to develop a leasing plan offshore in California, but that requires changes in technologies, if I understand it. Talk to me about what California might be able to do.
ROMM: Sure. Well, you know, the difference is between the east coast United States where the continental shelf slopes gradually and California where the continental shelf drops off very sharply, so that if you want to place wind off the shore of California, it's going to be deep water, which means it won't be connected to the bottom. So, this has got to be a floating turbine, and floating turbines have been more challenging. But in the last couple of years, you know, we have seen just tremendous advances in offshore wind, and the beauty of offshore wind is that if you've lived near the coast, you know the breeze is a lot steadier and the turbines are bigger and higher up in the air than they used to be, so we're also getting steadier wind here. And so literally, the wind is available as much as you get from a typical natural gas power plant. So, the technology has gotten better and the ability to operate in deep water is really opening up the possibilities of offshore wind off not just the coast of the United States, but around the world.
CURWOOD: So, seeing the Trump administration move to leasing offshore wind energy, renewable energy, to what extent do you see this as significant progress, or would some see this as a token nod from Secretary Zinke?
ROMM: It's clearly just a drop in the ocean, as it were, compared to the much larger attack on clean energy and clean power that the administration has launched. Clearly, the administration has said it's going to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. So, that global effort to reduce carbon pollution and move off of fossil fuels, that’s a setback. At the same time, the Trump administration is working to roll back Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would help, again, reduce carbon pollution, reduce the use of dirty fossil fuels. So, whether you look at the Department of Energy, or the EPA, or what President Trump is doing, by and large it is a very disaster for those who want clean air and clean water for their children and a livable climate.
CURWOOD: Talk to me about what these proposed projects would do. The Massachusetts bidding, how big is it? How many homes might it power? What California is looking at for offshore wind in this Trump administration plan? How much power would we get from that?
ROMM: I don't want to make it look like the process is far along. We're now at the stage where people are putting out leases to bid, and how many people are going to bid and how the projects go along. Ultimately, yes, we're talking about projects that could power hundreds of thousands, if not millions of homes. There's no question about it, that the opportunity is large. But it's worth noting, as you said, the one wind project off of Massachusetts has, you know, taken many years to get through all of the requirements. We only have, I think, one offshore wind project now that's going forward. So, you know, I think there's every reason to be very positive about the direction here, but the fact is, the United States has been very slow.
CURWOOD: By the way, to what extent would offshore wind be an employment program for American companies and workers?
ROMM: Well, there's no question that, this is a big job creator. When you look at traditional power plants, most of the jobs are in the building of the power plant. Whereas in the case of wind, you're actually, rather than building a power plant, and just sticking fuel in it, you're actually manufacturing these wind turbines. So, you generate really high paying jobs, and then you need the maintenance jobs. And so, one of the very fastest growing jobs in the entire United States is wind power technicians.
CURWOOD: So, let’s change subjects for just a moment here. We read in the Washington Post recently that there's been a 14-year long oil seep in the Gulf of Mexico. What can you tell us about that?
ROMM: Well, you know, I think people often when they think of oil spills, they think of these massive, very visible things, the Exxon Valdez, a big oil tanker running aground, or what happened with the BP oil spill, you know, a big explosion at an offshore platform. But there are places that have been just slowly leaking for a long time, and in this particular case, it's kind of been kept quiet. And people didn't realize that the individual daily rate of this leak is nothing compared to the daily rate of, you know, like the BP oil spill, but you know, it's been going on for over a decade. And it really underscores the need for oversight and investigation, which we haven’t been getting. I mean, and to be honest, the Department of Interior has actually under Zinke has been rolling back safety regulations that were put in place after the BP oil spill. The EPA has been gutting its Enforcement Division and letting people go and refusing to fill spots. So, you know, we're in a situation where there is very little oversight and people can be fairly brazen about it.
CURWOOD: There's a lot of skepticism about the Trump administration and concern that this move into wind power, there must be some catch. What do you respond to the skeptics?
ROMM: Well, I think people should clearly be skeptical of the Trump administration in general. If we had an administration that really cared about human health and welfare, then the focus would be on clean energy. And in this administration, it's just completely an afterthought. So I certainly want to praise Zinke, for you know, the positive effort towards offshore wind, but like I said, it's really a drop in the ocean compared to the disastrous policies across the board in the Trump administration.
CURWOOD: Joe Romm is founder and editor of ClimateProgress.org. His new book is called “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know”. Joe, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
ROMM: Thanks for having me.
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