Could an obscure provision of a Coast Guard bill threaten offshore wind energy?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

A bill that passed the House of Representatives in late March and is currently under consideration in the Senate could “cripple the development of the American offshore wind industry,” according to the industry’s trade association.

President Biden has set an ambitious goal of 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind electricity generation capacity by 2030, up from just 42 megawatts currently. As a core component of its strategy to slash the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change in half by 2030, the Biden administration is eagerly approving offshore wind farms, typically along the East Coast.

Joe Biden
President Biden in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But an amendment to the annual Coast Guard authorization bill that would require foreign-flagged ships installing wind turbines on the Outer Continental Shelf only if they have a U.S. crew or the crew of the nation from which the vessel is flagged. The intention is to protect U.S. workers from unfair competition from foreign vessels using lower cost labor from developing countries, but American Clean Power (ACP), the trade association for wind energy, says the amendment will have an unintended effect: grinding offshore wind development to a halt.

“If passed into law, this provision would prevent the U.S. from achieving the administration’s target of deploying 30,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030,” said ACP CEO Heather Zichal in a statement after the House passed the Coast Guard Authorization Act 378-46. (The amendment itself passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by an even wider margin, 58-2.)

The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., counters that he’s just trying “to level the playing field,” for American workers, who are currently competing with foreign workers in American waters.

“Proponents [of offshore wind] have been talking about all the American jobs the industry is going to create,” Graves told Yahoo News. “I find it ironic that people saying this transition to renewable energy is going to create all these jobs are out there fighting for foreigners to keep jobs.”

ACP argues that because the U.S. offshore wind industry is so new, not all functions can yet be performed by American crews. Wind turbines are enormous contraptions: taller than the Washington Monument, with blades the length of a football field. Assembling them in the ocean is a logistical challenge.

The U.S. lags far behind countries such as China, Germany and the U.K. in its offshore wind industry development, meaning it has less of the highly specialized labor available domestically.

Kayakers paddle near the Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Liverpool, England.
Kayakers paddle near the Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Liverpool, England. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

“The majority of vessels used by [the] offshore wind industry are already based in the U.S. and crewed by 100% American mariners,” Claire Richer, ACP’s director of offshore wind, told Yahoo News. “However, there’s going to be certain specialized construction vessels that don’t exist in the U.S.-flagged fleet that would be needed to build offshore wind. Because these vessels are hyper-specialized construction vessels, they have very specialized crews that go on them that have vessel-specific expertise. It’s not just training and certificates, it’s ‘Have you operated one of the world’s largest cranes before and have experience utilizing that crane?’”

“If you require switching out this experienced crew with a crew that has never been on that vessel before, that poses unacceptable safety risks to both the vessel’s operations and the crew,” Richer said.

She argues that if the Senate adopts the same language as the House, it would simply stop offshore wind projects currently in the pipeline, as they won’t be able to hire the crews needed to complete them. The result would then be fewer American jobs, rather than more, according to industry advocates like Richer.

“Just as Americans from the Gulf of Mexico taught Europeans how to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea, the U.S. needs to learn from the Europeans that have over 20 years of experience in offshore wind,” Richer said.

ACP estimates that the measure could stop the development of 1,460 megawatts of offshore wind energy per year, which would save the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of taking 1 million cars off the road each year.

Rep. Garret Graves
Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Graves noted that the language he proposed has a grace period in which already planned projects can move forward with foreign crews; this would give the offshore wind industry time to train American workers.

“It’s not our objective to stop or impede any project that’s under way,” Graves said. “Those folks [at ACP] need to hire a lawyer, because they don’t understand what [the amendment] does,” he added.

Some offshore wind proponents in Congress are worried, however. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., whose state is home to a major offshore wind project currently under construction, voted against the amendment.

He and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed to negotiate a compromise that could go into the Senate version, which will be produced within the next few months. DeFazio has met with stakeholders, and his office said he is open to working out a compromise such as a longer delay in implementation, but no new language has been announced.

“Right now there is no compromise because members of leadership have dug in despite the red flags being raised,” said a source close to the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations. “Senate Commerce, at the moment, is expected to include the House provision as-is in its version of the USCG [U.S. Coast Guard] bill, meaning there would be no opportunity to fix it during conference. House members are pushing with DeFazio staff but he’s still not actively cooperating.”

A United States Coast Guard crew member
A United States Coast Guard crew member on duty near the Cutter James in Port Everglades, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A spokesperson for the Democratic majority on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, did not respond to an inquiry. DeFazio’s office declined to comment, but noted that he has met with stakeholders such as environmental groups and is committed to finding a solution that would allow existing projects to be completed.

Auchincloss is apparently worried that such a deal won’t be reached. His office emailed a statement from him that reads like a shot across the bow of DeFazio and any other Democrat who would back the current provision: “This issue will make it plain who is and who is not serious about hitting President Biden’s goals for clean energy from offshore wind,” he said.

Graves said he is open to hypothetical compromises such as delayed implementation, but he warned against “​​drafting compromises that are solutions in search of problems.”

He added that slowing the build-out of offshore wind would be an acceptable alternative to building the industry with foreign labor, because clean energy sources such as wind will be supplanting existing fossil fuel industries.

“We have the biggest offshore oil and gas industry in the world,” Graves said. “Why would people want to replace American workers in conventional energy with foreign workers? Let’s make sure that [their workers] have a chance to compete” for jobs in offshore wind. “Otherwise, all you’re doing is taking away or eliminating American jobs.”

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