This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The New Bedford Light. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
Last May, Tommy Beaudreau touted the potential of renewable energy sources like offshore wind to an audience that included some of his government colleagues and former industry clients.
“This industry, this group of people in the room today, really are the key to unlocking that clean energy future,” Beaudreau, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, proclaimed at a conference hosted by the American Clean Power Association, a lobbying group largely funded by offshore wind developers.
Just one year earlier, Beaudreau had been a corporate lawyer, earning part of his $2.4 million income from offshore wind developers. Then he was appointed to regulate the industry he was previously paid to represent. During Beaudreau’s tenure, developers including several of his former clients have gained preliminary or final approvals for an unprecedented expansion of offshore wind, despite repeated warnings from federal scientists about potential harms to marine life and the fishing industry.
While the Trump administration put roadblocks in the path of offshore wind development, the Biden administration is fast-tracking clean alternatives like wind and solar to expand domestic energy production and slow the pace of climate change. In the next decade, 3,411 turbines and 9,874 miles of cable are slated to be built across 2.4 million acres of federally managed ocean.
Beaudreau is part of a revolving door between the government and offshore wind. Much as the Trump administration had a pipeline to and from oil and natural gas companies, in recent years at least 90 people have shuttled between federal, state or local government and the offshore wind industry, a ProPublica/New Bedford Light investigation has found. They range from rank-and-file bureaucrats to top policymakers like Beaudreau.
“It’s not uncommon, but it’s not good government,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group. “Wind is better than oil and gas, but that doesn’t mean we should cut corners. Giving them an easier path than they deserve means that someone else is going to pay the price.”
Apparently left out of this cozy relationship is one keenly affected group: more than 1 million people in the U.S. who work in the seafood industry, including 158,811 commercial fishermen. Fishermen have been shouldering longer hours and more expenses as private equity takes over their industry. Now, they are grappling with the prospect that offshore wind farms will box them out of fishing areas and further imperil their livelihoods.
For generations, East Coast fishermen have plied the same waters where turbines the height of 70-story skyscrapers will soon be spinning. The Atlantic’s Outer Continental Shelf is comparatively shallow, making it easier to anchor turbines deep in the ocean floor. Steady winds blow through the entire year. But it’s also along the shelf’s ridges that currents mix and sunlight penetrates, allowing microorganisms and fish to flourish in a complex ocean ecosystem.
Federal scientists, the commercial fishing industry and industry regulators each have sounded the alarm about potential harm to fish spawning habits and about the lack of compensation for losses suffered by fishermen who will be displaced by the offshore wind industry. The Interior Department has ignored or downplayed those warnings.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is part of the Interior Department, and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Commerce Department, have conflicting authority over the same stretches of federal waters. BOEM oversees permitting and leasing for offshore wind development, from which the federal government reaped more than $5 billion last year. NMFS is supposed to protect marine habitat and ensure that the fishing industry is both sustainable and economically viable.
“We are very concerned about the cumulative impacts of multiple wind energy projects on the fisheries we manage,” directors of three federally established regional councils that advise NMFS wrote last fall to Amanda Lefton, then the head of BOEM.
Lefton said last October that she wants to ensure that “not only can the commercial fishing industry and offshore wind coexist but that both industries can thrive.” The American Clean Power Association has run advertisements with a similar message.
Yet on paper, BOEM has been less sanguine. A May 2021 decision published by BOEM greenlighting the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project south of Martha’s Vineyard, which will be the first large-scale offshore wind farm approved for construction, conceded that there will be “negative economic impacts to commercial fisheries” and that, while fishermen will be allowed to fish within the boundaries of the wind farm, “it is likely that the entire 75,614 acre area will be abandoned by commercial fisheries.” The document was signed jointly by BOEM, NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Eight months later, in response to federal lawsuits accusing it of circumventing environmental protection, the agencies walked back their prediction that fishermen would abandon the area.
In January, Lefton left BOEM to join Foley Hoag, a law firm that has represented Vineyard Wind. There, she said in a press release, she will “leverage” her “experience in policy and regulation at the state and federal levels with the private sector to help businesses get projects built.”
Beaudreau and an Interior Department spokesperson, Tyler Cherry, declined to comment. Mike Moses, a spokesperson for Foley Hoag, said that Lefton complied with all ethics rules as a government official and that she has “an unwavering commitment to continue to do so moving forward.”
The future of wind power and the plight of fishermen are colliding in New Bedford, Massachusetts, an industrial city an hour south of Boston. The components to build turbines for Vineyard Wind, which started offshore construction last November, will be shipped from the Port of New Bedford, which is also the top-earning commercial fishing port in the nation. It supports almost 15,000 jobs and moves between 390 and 544 million pounds of seafood a year from its waterfront to consumers around the world.
“The great majority of the people who rely on going out to fish will be squeezed out of the industry,” said Scott Lang, a former mayor of New Bedford and an attorney who for four decades has represented many of the city’s commercial fishermen. “This is going to be the final nail.”
The year was 2008, and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy was sharing a drink with Alan Solomont, then a health care executive and former national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, at the senator’s vacation retreat on Cape Cod. It was a calm night, barely a breeze, Solomont recalled. As they looked out at the inky blackness of the Nantucket Sound, where developers were seeking permission to build the first wind farm off the East Coast, Kennedy told Solomont disdainfully, “And they want to build a factory out there.”
Though Cape Wind was a relatively small project by today’s standards, the Kennedys and other prominent families who didn’t want their scenic vista disturbed succeeded in quashing it. At the time, “the climate was not seen as the crisis we understand it to be today,” Solomont recalled.
Since then, the political winds, so to speak, have shifted. Offshore wind has evolved from a novelty opposed by powerful insiders to a political juggernaut that enjoys widespread support. Solomont himself is betting on its future. After serving as U.S. ambassador to Spain, he now sits on the board of Avangrid — a subsidiary of a Spanish renewable energy company that owns half of the Vineyard Wind development. He owns about $380,000 worth of Avangrid shares.
The U.S. has a “willing public sector that understands the importance” of offshore wind, “both to the environment and also to the economy,” Solomont said. “There is very little downside to this, and huge upside. Massachusetts is positioned to be a hub for the offshore wind industry. That means jobs. It is, in many respects, reminiscent of the early stages of biotech.”
BOEM has fostered this transformation. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Obama administration established BOEM to handle energy leasing and development across federally managed oceans. Its first director was Tommy Beaudreau, who oversaw the early framework for offshore wind regulation and leasing. BOEM also redrew development zones to move them farther offshore, which prevented residents from seeing the turbines, but also drove development into a different backyard — that of the commercial fishing industry.
In contrast to Kennedy, another Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Ed Markey, emerged as a key proponent of offshore wind as a way to boost the state’s economy and reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. He supported what he regarded as the Biden administration’s efforts to make up for time lost when the Trump administration stalled permits for offshore wind. He crafted tax incentives for offshore wind manufacturers, which were a priority for the industry’s lobbying group, and which were ultimately adopted in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Markey was a featured speaker at an American Clean Power conference on offshore wind in 2021.
Offshore wind was becoming more popular not just in Washington but also at the state level. Developers in Massachusetts began securing electricity contracts with state utilities in 2018 — locking project commitments into the Massachusetts power grid long before the developments had cleared environmental reviews or permitting.
Wind’s supporters in government flocked to join the burgeoning industry. Matt Beaton headed the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs when it approved a power purchase agreement with Vineyard Wind to distribute 800 megawatts of offshore wind energy. Beaton then joined consulting firm TRC Companies in 2019. According to its website, TRC provided “environmental siting and permitting support” for Vineyard Wind.
In a 2021 interview, Beaton said there’s an inevitable trade-off between energy production and environmental impact. “At the end of the day, I’m a natural resource guy. I’m a conservationist,” he said. “We don’t want to harm our environment.” At the same time, he added, “there is going to be some need for development.”
Beaton’s successor at the state energy office, Katie Theoharides, oversaw agreements with Vineyard Wind and SouthCoast Wind. Last year, she left government to head East Coast offshore development for international energy company RWE.
Beaton and Theoharides did not respond to requests for comment.
In late February, a 393-foot barge chugged around the eastern tip of Martha’s Vineyard. It was laying heavy cables into two 50-mile-long trenches, which will plug Vineyard Wind’s turbines into the state’s power grid.
Dug up to 8 feet into the ocean floor, the trenches mark the first ocean ground broken on a large-scale offshore wind farm. Starting this year, 62 turbines will be raised, slightly more than a mile apart, each as high as 837 feet, taller than the John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in Boston. Below the surface, each turbine will be supported by 197- to 312-foot-tall steel piles, each up to 34 feet wide, according to Vineyard Wind’s approved construction plans.
Vineyard Wind was the first of two wind farms on the East Coast to gain final approval from BOEM for construction. The second is South Fork Wind, located about 35 miles east of Montauk, New York.
BOEM approved the projects despite repeated warnings from the National Marine Fisheries Service about damage to the environment and the fishing industry.
Environmental laws require BOEM to consult with the fisheries service on projects taking place in “essential fish habitat,” which encompasses all offshore wind projects within 200 miles of the coast.
Fisheries regulators have been warning BOEM since 2018 about the impact of offshore wind projects. “The multiple wind energy projects planned along the east coast will have cumulative and compounding effects on our fisheries,” the three regional fishery councils on the East Coast wrote in last summer’s letter to the head of BOEM. They added that the “effects will increase in magnitude as more projects are built.”
For Vineyard Wind, fisheries scientists outlined how repeated blasts from pile driving into the ocean floor can cause “fish kills.” The sound wave impact, which can be felt underwater from as far as 50 miles away, can cause a “cumulative stress response” that disrupts the ability of fish to feed or spawn. Suspended sediment on the ocean floor kicked up by construction could also harm fish, and digging long and deep trenches to connect turbines to shore by cable would result in “permanent loss of juvenile cod” habitat.
But BOEM has the final say. It doesn’t have to heed the service’s recommendations, and it has largely ignored them.
Tensions over Vineyard Wind culminated in 2019, when NMFS disagreed with a key step in BOEM’s permitting. NMFS said BOEM’s environmental review “does not analyze the stated concerns raised by NMFS and the fishing industry.”
In response, BOEM’s chief environmental officer, William Yancey Brown, wrote that the concerns “do not rise to the level that would justify the likely extensive project delays and potential failure of the project.” Those delays, he added, “might prevent Vineyard Wind from qualifying for a federal investment tax credit.” He threatened to issue the environmental permit without NMFS support.
By the time BOEM approved Vineyard Wind for construction in July 2021, BOEM had downplayed the urgent concerns raised by the fisheries service. Its final environmental impact statement said that pile driving would cause “short-term, minor impacts,” effects of laying cables would “likely be negligible,” and the harm to marine life would be “minor.”
Twenty miles west of Vineyard Wind, South Fork Wind wants to undertake a smaller project, with 12 turbines generating about one-sixth the overall power. But the impact on fisheries habitats there is expected to be far worse, according to NMFS scientists.
South Fork Wind spans Cox Ledge, a spawning ground for Atlantic cod and 25 other species vital to the marine ecosystem and commercial fishing. Turbine locations for the project “may result in cascading long term to permanent effects to species that rely on this area for spawning,” a fisheries administrator cautioned BOEM. He added that the habitats “may take years to decades to recover.”
South Fork developers were more explicit than BOEM about the risks of turbine construction. “Intense sound pressure waves” may result in “injury or mortality caused by rupturing swim bladders or by internal hemorrhaging,” the developers wrote in their approved construction plans. Pile driving has the “potential to interrupt migration patterns” for fish.
Nevertheless, BOEM concluded that “considerable uncertainty remains” about the project’s impact. The “available evidence to date suggests that the effects of long-term habit alteration from wind development on finfish are generally beneficial,” BOEM stated in August 2021, writing that the construction on Cox Ledge “could result in beneficial, neutral, or potentially negative effects.” In January 2022, BOEM approved South Fork Wind to begin construction.
“It’s frustrating that there aren’t clear requirements to avoid an impact to these habitats,” said Michelle Bachman, a fishery analyst studying habitat and offshore wind, who led the research on South Fork Wind for the NMFS regional office. “There isn’t much we have the ability to do.”
Both Vineyard Wind and South Fork Wind have enjoyed a key advocate: Beaudreau.
After leaving government during the Trump administration, Beaudreau became a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins. He represented major offshore wind firms, including Vineyard Wind and Ørsted, the developer behind South Fork Wind. Beaudreau also worked with Avangrid Renewables — one of two partners behind Vineyard Wind — on “environmental and permitting matters” for another offshore wind project, The Washington Post reported.
Beaudreau’s potential conflicts of interest dwarf those of David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuels lobbyist who served as deputy secretary and secretary of the Interior Department in the Trump administration. Bernhardt has said he carried a list of 22 former clients with him so he could avoid conflicts. In Beaudreau’s financial disclosures, he reported working for 35 clients during the Trump administration, including 10 companies with offshore wind developments.
Beaudreau “has very deep conflicts,” said Hartl, of the Center for Biological Diversity. The Interior Department, he said, “is under enormous political pressure to accelerate this industry. He is driving that.”
Nevertheless, Beaudreau sailed through. The U.S. Senate confirmed him in June 2021 by an 88-9 vote. In a letter read aloud by Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, former Obama administration interior secretary Sally Jewell lauded Beaudreau’s “pragmatic knowledge of how to get things done.”
Beaudreau promised to recuse himself from decisions directly affecting former clients for two years. Still, emails show he and Lefton, who as head of BOEM reported to him, scheduled joint meetings with executives of offshore wind companies — including one with the then-head of the American Clean Power Association and another with a past chief executive of Avangrid.
The Interior Department did not respond to questions about what was discussed at the meetings.
“There is nothing that leaves the Interior Department that doesn’t have to first cross the desk of the deputy secretary,” said a former high ranking Interior official, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his career prospects. “It is a position that makes it very difficult to avoid any conflicts of interest.”
In Denmark, where the first offshore wind farm was built in 1991, a law mandates that fishermen be compensated for loss of income when other ocean users take up fishing grounds. According to the Danish Energy Agency, an offshore wind project will “necessarily” have an impact on fisheries in the area, and so it is essential to have a legal framework to address it.
By contrast, the U.S. hasn’t figured out how to compensate fishermen whose livelihood may be damaged. So far, the federal government has left the issue of compensation to developers. Some have offered one-time payments to the fishing industry. Vineyard Wind has committed about $21 million for Massachusetts fishermen, and South Fork Wind $2.6 million. But developers say they are financially squeezed by supply chain issues and proposed limits on turbine locations for the protection of whales. They don’t want their contracts with the government to build in additional payments for damages that may be attributed to their projects: the loss of historic fishing grounds, lost or wrecked gear and increased risk of accidents as vessel radar systems are disrupted.
In 2020, commercial lobsterman Vincent Damm made two trips to sea to bait his traps and discovered that more than a dozen were missing. Checking a vessel tracking chart, he saw that a survey vessel working with wind developer Ørsted had traveled directly over his gear.
He applied to Ørsted for compensation for his loss, which he valued at $3,900 and an independent consultant put at $1,800. Under Ørsted’s procedures, three people review fishermen’s claims: Two are Ørsted employees, and the third is a paid consultant for the company.
Ørsted concluded that its survey vessels were not at fault. On one occasion, the panel said, Ørsted’s vessel came no closer than half a mile from Damm’s traps. The other survey vessel followed the same track as Damm’s trawl, but equipment that could have snagged his gear wasn’t deployed. Ørsted also said other fishing vessels traveled near or over Damm’s gear.
Damm was never compensated and had to pay for new lobster pots. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” he said. “But if they do it now, they’re just going to keep doing it to someone else.”
Ørsted spokesperson Meaghan Wims said that the company does not comment on individual claims. It has received “very few claims for lost or damaged gear,” she said.
While the federal government has required oil and natural gas companies to compensate fishermen for damages for decades, BOEM lacks regulatory authority to do the same for damages from offshore wind projects. It has signaled off and on since 2014 that it will consider offering guidelines for compensation, but they have yet to be officially released.
A working group convened by BOEM early in 2022 discussed how to quantify economic losses for fishermen from offshore wind development. Notes of early meetings, obtained through a public records request, warned that habitat losses “would have direct impact on fishing.” But after BOEM’s lead biologist recommended toning down the language, the group’s final report said that offshore wind development “could” impact commercial fishermen and their revenue.
Last August, the New Bedford Port Authority wrote to BOEM, challenging what it described as “equivocal” language in the draft guidelines: “There is not one single entity, including BOEM, that reasonably thinks that such payments will not be necessary, so why is BOEM still using uncertain language in that instance?
“We strongly believe that the ‘burden of proof’ must lie with developers to prove to the fishing community that they are not causing environmental or economic harm.”
Markey has announced a plan to use funds from wind lease sales to establish a national compensation fund, though the legislation has not yet been filed. Markey’s office has received technical assistance from BOEM and NOAA in drafting the bill. “The long-term success of the offshore wind industry will depend on its ability to coexist not only with marine life but with the economic life of our commonwealth, including ports, fisheries, eco-tourism, and more,” Rosemary Boeglin, spokesperson for Markey, said in a statement.
Even if a national fund is authorized, it won’t be easy to calculate the cumulative economic loss for commercial fisheries. The task is complicated by inconsistent research methods used by developers, a lack of long-term studies and BOEM’s failure to conduct a comprehensive analysis of offshore wind lease areas off the New England coast.
“We’re building this ship as we’re sailing it,” NMFS scientist Andrew Lipsky said last October at a conference on wind power. “When we don’t think through the science, we often get ourselves in trouble.”
This month, a nearly 400-page report released by BOEM, NMFS and a fishing industry group said that the proliferation of wind farms is likely to impede regulators from collecting on-site data on the health of fish stocks. The lack of such information will result in “greater uncertainty” and “lost revenue to commercial and recreational fishermen,” the report said.
Fishermen worry that the lack of information on economic impact will favor developers in future negotiations over compensation. They also say the potential losses are a sum they never wanted to calculate in the first place.
“Fishing is my way of life. How do you put a price on somebody’s way of life?” Maine lobsterman Matt Gilley told wind developers, state and federal officials during a Zoom meeting in December. “There is no monetary compensation that will ever make it right.”