Legal & Regulatory

Streamlined Permitting Key to California’s Floating Offshore Wind Development

Earlier this year the Biden administration hosted its inaugural Floating Offshore Wind Shot Summit, showcasing the efforts of federal departments to work with state, tribal, industry, and other interests to develop 15 GW of floating offshore wind in the U.S. by 2035. Recent efforts to implement this goal include the Department of Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM’s) offshore wind energy auction in December 2022 for five leases off California’s central and northern coast, with the potential to generate more than 4.6 GW of electricity.

The Pacific Outer Continental Shelf has deeper waters, requiring floating platforms with wind turbines connected by electrical cables and attached to the seafloor. In addition to reducing the significant cost of this technology, success will hinge on coordination among federal, state, and local agencies to develop the necessary port and transmission infrastructure to bring the wind energy to shore and regulatory permitting process.

California’s Assembly Bill 525, adopted in 2021, requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to develop a strategic plan for offshore wind energy development in federal waters off the California coast to meet its goal of 2 GW to 5 GW of energy by 2030, and 25 GW by 2045. The strategic plan, which is due to the California Natural Resources Agency and state lawmakers this year, will be informed by a permitting roadmap for wind energy facilities, and associated electricity and transmission infrastructure.

Lindsay Puckett

An offshore wind project could require more than 20 permits or approvals from federal, state, and local jurisdictions. The CEC released a draft permitting roadmap for public comment in December 2022, followed by a staff report in April 2023 recommending state agencies coordinate their permitting. The CEC envisions an interagency agreement to determine roles, timeframes, and implementation, and a single permit application checklist. The public, tribes, and stakeholders will have opportunities to provide input, and the roadmap may evolve over time.

Federal and State Environmental Review and Permitting

After BOEM enters a lease for offshore wind development, individual lessees proceed with site assessment activities and surveys to determine baseline environmental conditions, and submit a site assessment plan within one year from lease issuance. No further environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or consistency determination from the California Coastal Commission under federal law is needed for site assessment activities previously considered by BOEM as part of the lease sale, unless there is significant new information or changes to the activities.

A lessee submits a construction and operations plan to BOEM within six months prior to completion of site assessment. BOEM will analyze the project’s potential environmental impacts and any necessary mitigation measures under NEPA, and consult with other federal agencies. A project may also need approvals from other federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

State and local agencies should receive sufficient information from BOEM and lessees during site assessment to begin environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A lessee’s application for a lease from the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over tidelands, submerged lands, or public trust lands, will likely trigger the most extensive review for the state. The State Lands Commission will likely be the lead agency under CEQA and may agree to conduct joint NEPA review. Another approach to CEQA could be a programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR) used to streamline later review for individual projects.

Lessees will submit their applications for permits from state responsible agencies while the draft EIR is being finalized after public review under CEQA. This could include the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The responsible agencies will consider the CEQA document once it is certified by the lead agency.

The Coastal Commission plans to consider applications for a coastal development permit simultaneous with its hearing on whether the construction and operations plan is consistent with the state’s coastal management program as required for federal activities. Therefore, it is essential for California and BOEM to coordinate environmental review. Tribal consultation requirements could also be coordinated and occur at a programmatic level including multiple lessees and projects.

Continually Evolving Regulatory Process

The CEC’s draft permitting roadmap does not focus on upgrades needed at ports and waterfront facilities or electric transmission lines beyond their first onshore points of interconnection, which will be addressed in the strategic plan. It is also silent on the potential for a project’s submarine cables to cross one or more of the national marine sanctuaries spanning the California coast, which generally prohibit cable installation except for limited activities allowed with a permit or other authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This is only a snapshot of evolving federal and state regulatory processes for offshore wind development that will need to be continually monitored. Given BOEM’s approximately 10-year lease, assessment, and permitting timeline, coordination among regulatory agencies will be crucial to minimizing project delay.

Lindsay Puckett is Of Counsel with Stoel Rives LLP. Note: The CEC’s final permitting roadmap had not been released as of this writing.

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