ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) -- Two major offshore wind power projects are taking steps forward in New Jersey as the owners of one project agreed to bring the federal government in on their environmental monitoring plans at an earlier stage than has ever been done, and federal regulators said plans for another project are not expected to kill or seriously injure marine life.
They come as New Jersey continues to grow as a hub of opposition to offshore wind projects from residents' groups and their political allies, mostly Republicans. The state's Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature want to make the state the East Coast leader in offshore wind energy.
Community Offshore Wind, a joint venture between Essen, Germany-based RWE and New York-based National Grid Ventures, on Thursday announced a five-year partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to promote the exchange of data and expertise on environmental monitoring for offshore wind projects.
The agreement will bring the federal agency into the company's planning process at a much earlier stage than is currently done in the offshore wind industry, an arrangement that could become the new industry standard, according to company president Doug Perkins.
"Instead of us coming up with this on our own and getting some feedback from the agencies, we will work together to make sure that it's efficient in the data they collect," he said. "It creates the opportunity, the avenue for us to engage with them, and for them to engage with us, to make sure that our plans, how we're sampling, where we're sampling, when we're sampling, fits with what they do and with what will be required of the industry."
Jon Hare, director of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, praised the proposed collaboration.
"With help from a number of collaborators and the fishing industry, our agency maintains some of the world's most comprehensive data sets on large marine ecosystems," he said. "Our goal is to bring offshore wind energy monitoring activities into this partnership. This agreement is our first chance to make these partnerships a reality and show by example that effective scientific monitoring benefits everyone."
Community has leased a 125,000 acre site 60 miles (97 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, and 37 miles (60 kilometers) off Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey. Its project has yet to be designed but is likely to include at least 100 wind turbines. It could be active by 2030 or 2031, Perkins said.
On Wednesday, NOAA released a letter of authorization for Denmark-based Orsted's Ocean Wind I project in southern New Jersey.
It involved approval of plans for unintentional harassment or injury of marine mammals during construction of the project, which would build 98 turbines about 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the coast of Ocean City and Atlantic City. The impact is referred to by the agency as "take," which refers to harassment or injury of animals.
"Ocean Wind did not request and (the National Marine Fisheries Service) neither expects nor authorizes incidental take by serious injury or mortality," the agency wrote.
Opponents of offshore wind blame the deaths of 70 whales along the East Coast since December on offshore wind site preparation work. But three federal scientific agencies say there is no evidence that such work is responsible for the deaths, about half of which have been attributed to vessel strikes.
NOAA is requiring Orsted to take a number of steps designed to avoid harm to whales, including a moratorium on the detonation of undersea explosives from Nov. 1 through April 30; visual and acoustic monitoring of the waters near such explosions before, during and after them; shutting down pile driving "if feasible" if an endangered North American right whale or other marine mammal enters certain prescribed zones; and noise mitigation steps including using the least amount of hammer force possible for foundation installations.
David Shanker, a spokesman for the Save the Right Whales Coalition, called the decision "appalling." The group recently sent NOAA the results of a study by an independent acoustics company asserting that offshore wind survey vessels have been exceeding approved decibel levels and appear to be using other-than-approved devices.
"There has been a complete breakdown in the system designed to protect marine wildlife and protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction," Shanker said.
NOAA declined comment.
Earlier this week, Republicans in the state Senate called for a moratorium on all offshore wind projects. They asked for a special session of the Legislature to consider measures to prohibit further tax breaks for offshore wind companies beyond one already given to Orsted. Senate Democrats declined comment.
On Wednesday, six protesters were arrested after they refused to leave a roadway in Ocean City where Orsted began onshore testing for its first wind farm project.