On November 22, 2023, the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation appealed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) approval of the South Fork and Revolution wind farms off the Rhode Island coast in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The appeals detail the failure of BOEM to comply with the heightened levels of review required under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The Southeast Lighthouse is the first and only National Historic Landmark in the United States to have experienced the effects of offshore wind development due to its proximity to the Block Island Wind Farm.
Developers have to date proposed nine (9) massive wind farms off the coast. At least 564 turbines, each twice as tall as Rhode Island’s Superman Building or taller, will be visible for the next 30 years. BOEM concludes this will cause a “major adverse impact” to the Southeast Lighthouse National Historic Landmark and Block Island’s sense of place and economy. Danish developer Orsted’s own study suggests that this level of ocean industrialization could lead to losses to the heritage tourism economies of Atlantic Coast communities. Block Island risks losses of an estimated $1.25 billion and thousands of jobs, not including inflation, property value reductions, and loss of tax revenues. Yet, BOEM is allowing the developers to proceed without appropriately mapping these harms and without responsibly mitigating them.
Please see the below FAQs for more information on the appeals and the issues involved.
1. Why did SELF appeal BOEM’s decisions?
SELF appealed BOEM’s decisions because BOEM has violated federal laws passed by Congress to protect the Nation’s environmental and cultural resources. In repeatedly violating those laws to speed the development of offshore wind farms, BOEM is setting a terrible precedent that significantly weakens the ability of those same laws to protect against environmental and cultural harms caused by every other type of industrial development, whether it be fracking on traditional Native American sites, building highways through the center of historically Black neighborhoods, or constructing coal-powered plants in low-income communities. This is among the primary reasons that the oldest and largest association of Tribal Nations, the National Congress of American Indians, has passed a strongly worded resolution calling for a moratorium on continued construction of industrial scale offshore wind farms until BOEM corrects its multiple failures to comply with its duties.
2. Will the turbines be visible from Block Island?
BOEM concedes that at least 564 turbines will be visible from Block Island, not including the 5 turbines already off its shores. The proposed industrialized farms will be highly visible. We suspect that the vast majority of people who live on and visit Block Island have no idea that this is true. When the federal government allowed the lease areas for offshore wind to be determined a dozen years ago, it allowed communities to be misled into believing the turbines would be barely visible, if visible all. This was untrue. Even when the first 5 turbines were put in people were told that this may lead to other farms but they will not be visible. This is also untrue. Some residents, when fully informed, may have no worries about a totally industrialized ocean off our coast for 30 years—they are entitled to their opinion—but not their own facts. BOEM and Orsted do not have the right to mislead our residents by hiding the facts of the industrialization. Also, BOEM admits this volume of proposed turbines will cause Block Island harm but requires that Orsted do nothing about it – putting all risks on the community.
3. Does SELF expect to stop the projects?
Our appeal does not seek to stop the projects. We want the projects to be permitted responsibly, with fair consideration of alterations and mitigation that can limit harms to the communities that bear the brunt of the impacts as federal law requires.
4. What is SELF hoping will come from the appeals?
The goal of the appeals is to have projects properly permitted, as BOEM should have done from the beginning. We do not want federal environmental laws that our communities depend on to be irresponsibly weakened. We hope that a court will order BOEM to accurately assess the impacts on Block Island and mandate appropriate changes reflecting a realistic assessment of those harms.
5. What is BOEM’s duty?
Every form of industrial development, even green energy projects with positive impacts, also has harmful impacts. BOEM has a federal mandate from Congress to look out for the interests of the American people by finding balance between the need for any type of industrial energy development in oceans and the harmful impact of that development on the environment and cultural resources. Other federal agencies have the same duty for different types of industrial development on land; for instance, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is similarly charged with balancing the benefits and harms of gas pipelines. It is BOEM’s duty to ensure that the risks of those impacts for offshore wind are shared between the project developers and the communities that are home to the environmental and cultural resources that are harmed. This duty has been federal law for more than 50 years, despite repeated efforts by the fossil fuels industry (many leaders of which now develop offshore wind projects) to weaken it. BOEM’s failure to ensure balance for offshore wind development on the East Coast is among the most egregious, fastest-moving, and largest scale failures of any federal agency in modern history.
BOEM knows that they are making serious mistakes. We know this because they are trying to fix those mistakes on the West Coast for the wind industry that is developing later there. They are moving too quickly on the East Coast, however, to take the time to fix their errors and instead are hoping that everyone just turns a blind eye or is intimidated from raising concerns for fear of being labeled as anti-environmentalists.
6. In what specific ways has BOEM failed to find balance?
First, BOEM is obligated to consult adversely impacted communities very early in the project development process. In the case of the South Fork Wind Farm Project, BOEM allowed the developer to proceed long into project development without BOEM consulting the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation, despite being a National Historic Landmark that will experience direct impacts and having been actively involved in the Block Island Wind Farm negotiation. SELF heard of the project through another nonprofit and subsequently requested to be a consulting party. Similarly, the Town of New Shoreham was not notified and only became involved following SELF’s involvement.
Second, BOEM is required to analyze the cumulative impacts of all related or adjacent projects, not just look at each project in isolation. In these cases, as in cases up and down the Atlantic coast, BOEM is assessing the impacts of one wind project at a time. In the case of South Fork they began with the project with the smallest number of turbines (because then it is easier to conclude that the harms are more limited), knowing full well that immediately behind that project are multiple other projects containing hundreds of turbines, creating an industrialized ocean with impacts greater than the sum of the parts. This “segmenting” of projects to draw less attention to scaled-up harms is an old fossil fuels industry trick, which some developers have brought over to offshore wind development, now with BOEM’s blessing.
Third, BOEM must have a staged process for permitting any project. First, BOEM must map the environmental and cultural resources that might be harmed. Then, analyze the nature and degree of harm. Next, require that adverse effects be avoided, minimized, or mitigated to the greatest extent possible. Only after completing those steps should BOEM decide whether to allow the project to proceed. In the case of offshore wind, BOEM has illegally reversed that order: they are allowing projects to proceed without having completed the first three steps. Imagine that this was a proposed factory threatening the water supply of a neighboring low- income historic community. No one would want to reverse the required legal order such that the factory is built before the regulating agency analyzes the impacts on the water. By setting this precedent for offshore wind, BOEM is setting the stage for exactly that pattern to happen in thousands of places across the country for years to come.
Fourth, BOEM has failed to ensure balance by allowing the risks of the harms of offshore industrialization to be borne by the impacted communities and Tribal Nations instead of requiring the developers, who are best positioned to address those harms, to mitigate the risks.
7. Are you exaggerating the threats to all American communities of the bad precedent that BOEM is setting?
No. The law firm representing us is the foremost firm in the United States dealing with enforcement of the National Historic Preservation Act and applicable sections of the National Environmental Policy Act. They have resolved numerous, high-profile cases on behalf of all types of communities (small, large, rich, poor, white, indigenous, Black, and other underserved communities.) being harmed by all types of industrial projects (from pipelines to data centers). Our advisors see, and we agree, that there is a direct line between BOEM’s failures in these projects and the strategies that other industries will take to speed projects through permitting with improper review. Our firm has been warning the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation about this concern for several years, through multiple administrations, regardless of the party in power.
8. What are the risks to Block Island?
For at least the next 30 years Block Island will be home to an industrialized ocean landscape with hundreds of turbines three times taller than the Statue of Liberty.
An industrialized ocean viewshed will alter for at least 30 years one of the main reasons that people from around the world visit “The Ocean State” and Block Island. Block Island’s Atlantic Ocean environment and views give us our sense of place – which is valued not just by occupants but by millions of people who journey here and keep coming back. To say that this character-defining and economy-driving asset must be sacrificed because of the pressing needs for green energy presents a false choice. There are countless ways to address climate change, including offshore wind. Unfortunately, the position large developers have adopted with BOEM’s illegal consent is this: it is our way or nothing. The developer’s proposal is the cheapest way for them to build the wind farms, but it isn’t the only way.
Developer Orsted’s own study found that 15% of visitors would not return to an Atlantic coastal community once turbines became visible. BOEM’s and the developer’s own analysis demonstrates that the visual effects on Newport and Block Island from Revolution Wind alone will be “major” because National Historic Landmarks in these communities – including the Southeast Lighthouse – are within 15 miles of the closest turbines. Cumulative Historic Resources Visual Effects Analysis—Revolution Wind and Revolution Wind Export Cable Project (Feb. 2022), at 39.
A loss of 15% of Block Island’s heritage tourism economy would cost the community an estimated 1.25 billion dollars during the projects’ lifespan. (Based on a state report documenting 2020 Block Island Heritage Tourism figures x 15% loss x 30 years.) That figure is not adjusted for inflation and does not count property value losses and related losses in tax revenue. Those lost billions pay for our schools, hospitals, roads, emergency responders, parks, and countless other public services. Hundreds of local jobs—actual, currently existing blue-collar jobs, not those promised by the Developer—depend directly on our heritage tourism economy.
Block Island is willing to make sacrifices, just like every other community should be prepared to do to address climate change. We currently host the first offshore windfarm off of our coast. But five turbines is very different than at least 564 turbines. What is now an oddity will quickly become a sea of industrialization. BOEM should balance the threats to livelihood of the people who live here and the profits of multi-billion-dollar developers who are mostly foreign-owned companies who have never set foot in our community.
Other organizations can speak to BOEM’s abject failure to measure impact. For example, concerning fish populations on the continental shelf which is the fish “superhighway” BOEM’s response is that they will get to studying the harms to one of the world’s most important fishing zones after the farms are built.
9. Is SELF against offshore wind?
No. We support responsibly permitted green energy projects. However, rushing the permitting process when there are many legitimate, unanswered questions about offshore wind’s adverse effects causes unnecessary risk of loss to our cultural heritage, our economy, the environment and our bedrock environmental laws.
10. What does SELF want?
We want a permitting review process that follows the law. We want laws that are not weakened under political or developer pressure. We want to educate the community on what it means to balance cultural and environmental preservation with clean energy development so that the two goals can be simultaneously pursued, which they are in other places in the United States and throughout the world. We find it regrettable that industry and BOEM have been feeding the public the idea that you cannot have both clean energy and preserved community character and local economies, in balance, because that is a false choice. We also regret that some narratives take the easy but unhelpful route of painting this need for balance in stark black and white terms (pro or against clean energy) instead of acknowledging the complexity of the issue and the ability to achieve aligned goals.
11. Is SELF saying that preserving their viewshed is more important than saving the Earth?
No. This is a false choice. First, just for perspective, one might consider that BOEM itself has determined that the effect of all of these wind farms if built exactly to developer specifications will have an impact on global warming reduction that is so small as to be impossible to measure. Those are BOEM’s conclusions, in small print, hidden at the back of one of their environmental assessments. We recognize that green energy projects must start somewhere, and that the symbolism of offshore energy is important in the movement. That said, clearly there are thousands of clean energy solutions required in every corner of the globe to be able to address our climate disaster. Are we to treat every developer’s proposal for every project as beyond question? Is anyone who dares to raise a hand and say, “Can’t we take a moment to consider how some of the anticipated and unanticipated harms of these projects should be more carefully considered?” to be labeled as indifferent to climate change? We deserve a more thoughtful dialogue.
12. Is this just about money?
No. Throughout BOEM’s flawed consultation process we have advocated for design changes such as removing rows of turbines, reducing the number of turbines, and reducing the size of turbines. Other measures such as using non-reflective paint and Aircraft Detection Lighting Systems (ADLS) have become industry standards; permitting review should start from there, not end there. Mitigation for adverse effects is one of the many ways that developers can assist a community to balance both the benefits and harm of development. BOEM has ignored all such input.
13. How do you respond to people who say viewsheds are a NIMBY concern and you care only about rich people’s views?
The importance of National Historic Landmarks has nothing to do with market value or an owner’s net worth. These historic treasures speak to our history as Americans, and for that reason Federal law requires the highest level of protection. SELF is proud to be the steward of the Southeast Lighthouse, Block Island’s only National Historic Landmark and one of the most sophisticated lighthouses in the nation of the nineteenth century. It is the highest lighthouse in New England and has served as a primary coastal light within the U. S. Lighthouse Service and its successor organization, the U.S. Coast Guard. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many shipwreck victims were rescued at the site and found shelter within the lighthouse.
As its steward, we are entrusted with preserving the landmark for future generations, and to take action to ensure that laws to protect it, including its viewsheds, are enforced.
Block Island represents the traditional, historic relationship that historic ocean-facing communities continue to maintain to their ocean settings. As such, there are many places on Block Island where people from all walks of life enjoy unobstructed ocean views. Throughout the Ocean State are many beaches where the public come to relax and recreate – not to see an industrialized horizon with hundreds of wind turbines.
Every summer, Block Island’s population swells with visitors to enjoy its unobstructed ocean views. Their visits power the local economy and provide employment for local residents. Orsted’s studies have indicated that over a thirty-year period, billions of visitor dollars will disappear from the local economies of historic coastal communities if their wind farms are built as planned.
14. What mitigation has been offered and why wasn’t that acceptable?
For both the South Fork and the Revolution wind farms, BOEM proposed a hodgepodge of random projects, developed by the developers’ consultants, the community neither asked for nor needs. Further, these projects are not guaranteed and are absurdly inadequate compared to the scale of loss they will experience for the next 30 years. This result is because BOEM has skipped the legally required steps which accurately maps the harms and the adverse impacts. Sunrise Wind continues this pattern. Consider that BOE considers adequate mitigation for the risks of massive economic and job losses some weed whacking the Southeast Lighthouse parking lot.
15. What is Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act?
The primary historic preservation law at the federal level is the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). With its passage by Congress in 1966, it became the nation’s most comprehensive preservation law, creating institutions to advance historic preservation goals and establishing a clearly defined process for historic preservation in the United States. Section 106 is a part of the NHPA that requires the government to identify historic properties and assess the adverse effects caused by the proposed development; adverse effects can be direct, indirect, or cumulative over time, and include visual effects that change a historic property’s context or setting. The Section 106 process requires federal agencies to consider these adverse effects, with the goal of finding ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate harm to these properties through consultation with parties known as “consulting parties.” “Consulting parties” are individuals, governments (local, state, or Tribal), or entities that have a demonstrated economic or legal interest in a project’s outcome. SELF has participated as a “consulting party” in BOEM’s review of South Fork Wind, Revolution Wind, and Sunrise Wind but BOEM has ignored our comments. Read more here.
16. What is Section 110(f) of the National Historic Preservation Act?
Section 110(f) requires federal agencies in charge of permitting to use “all possible planning to minimize harm” to National Historic Landmarks, our nation’s most outstanding historic properties. Section 110(f) requires federal agencies to consult with the National Park Service, which administers the National Historic Landmarks Program, and requires a more heightened level of scrutiny than Section 106 because of the historic significance National Historic Landmarks represent For links to the National Historic Preservation Act and regulations, see here and here.
17. What is NEPA?
NEPA, otherwise known as the National Environmental Policy Act, is the federal law passed by Congress to inform the American public about the effects of major government actions on all aspects of the human environment. NEPA provides procedural protections in permitting by requiring an analysis of adverse effects on the environment, which in addition to the natural environment includes historic and cultural resources as well as economic impacts. Under NEPA, a federal agency may not proceed with a proposed action until it performs an environmental review that includes meaningful consideration of alternatives to the proposed action that would avoid or have a less harmful impact. The review can either result in an Environmental Assessment or a more robust document known as an Environmental Impact Statement, if the federal agency determines that the proposed action will have a significant effect on the human environment. In either event, critical to the agency’s analysis is whether a proposed action will have a significant effect on historic or cultural resources. At issue may be the degree and the way a proposed action affects historic or cultural sites listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to impacts on the natural environment, such as water, air, or fish and wildlife. Sometimes seemingly insignificant impacts, including visual intrusions, may rise to the level of a significant effect or cumulative impact when viewed collectively. Read more here in the Council on Environmental Quality’s Citizen’s Guide to NEPA.
18. How can I stay updated on SELF’s appeals?
Track developments here: https://www.culturalheritagepartners.com/offshore-wind-appeals/