Major changes are in the wind—literally and figuratively—concerning leasing of sites for offshore energy production. How might parks be affected by the new national plan for offshore energy that's currently being developed?
There's no question that energy—including supply, conservation, and cost—is a vitally important topic for the nation, and National Park Service sites have a lot at stake in the ongoing debate.
Many NPS areas are located near, or even literally on top of, potential domestic energy supplies. Last fall's discussion of controversial U.S. Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases near parks in Utah and recent NPS concerns with proposed solar plants in the Desert Southwest are just two examples of difficult park and energy issues.
One of the challenges for park supporters and other environmental groups will be balancing protection of key park resources—including the thorny question of viewsheds—with the admirable goal of moving toward more sustainable "green" energy sources.
NPS areas along our coastlines have a stake in the outcome of a plan currently being developed by the Interior Department for future leases of public lands for offshore energy development. Finding widely acceptable sites for offshore energy will be a challenge, since much of our coastline is occupied either by parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas, or by residential and resort areas. In all of those cases, protecting "the view" is a major issue.
A good example is the protracted fight over the Cape Wind Project in Nantucket Sound. As currently planned, that project seems to avoid impacts on the nearby Cape Cod National Seashore, but local residents with powerful political and financial connections aren't happy, and the battle over this project is probably not over.
Some major "big picture" decisions about offshore energy will be made in the months ahead. Whether you want to get involved in the debate or just follow the discussions, the following information will help you understand the process.
Brace yourself for a few acronyms—most of the following is adapted from Interior Department (DOI) websites—but I'll streamline things for you. The following paragraph includes most of the alphabet soup you'll need to know.
Just before the end of the Bush administration, Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) released a Draft Proposed Program (DPP) for a 5-year program for oil and gas lease sales. It covers the years 2010-2015 and includes sites on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).
A 5-Year Program includes the size, timing, and location of all proposed leasing activity the Interior secretary determines will best meet national energy needs for a five-year period. Any areas offered for leasing must be included in an approved 5-Year Program. These plans are important (no listing, no lease).
The 5-year Program proposed by the Bush administration listed 31 Outer Continental Shelf lease sales in 12 OCS planning areas: Four areas off Alaska, two off the Pacific Coast, three in the Gulf of Mexico, and three off the Atlantic Coast. The deadline established by the Bush administration for public comment on that plan was March 23, 2009.
Shortly after beginning work as Interior secretary, Ken Salazar said he "needed to restore order to a broken process," and "announced his strategy for developing an offshore energy plan that includes both conventional and renewable resources."
Noting that the March 23, 2009, deadline did not provide enough time for public review or for wise decisions on behalf of taxpayers, he extended the public comment period on the proposed 5-year plan by 180 days, to September 21, 2009.
Secretary Salazar notes that "the Draft Proposed Program is just a starting place, designed to encourage discussions about the OCS areas of greatest interest and potential." That draft was prepared by his predecessor, and Mr. Salazar's statements in recent weeks make it clear his plans for offshore energy include more than just oil and gas.
As part of his energy strategy, the secretary directed departmental agencies to assemble all the information available about the offshore resources – conventional and renewable – along with information about potential impacts. That report was due, and delivered, by the end of March.
Secretary Salazar noted that DOI needed better information about what resources may be available in the offshore areas.
“In the biggest area that the Bush Administration’s draft OCS plan proposes for oil and gas drilling—the Atlantic seaboard, from Maine to Florida—our data on available resources is very thin, and what little we have is twenty to thirty years old,” he said. “We shouldn’t make decisions to sell off taxpayer resources based on old information."
Now, “(T)o gather the best ideas for how we accomplish the task of gathering the offshore information we need," Secretary Salazar held four regional meetings in April to "ask all interested parties for their recommendations on how to move ahead with a comprehensive offshore energy plan." Those meetings were held in Atlantic City, New Orleans, Anchorage and San Francisco. You can see videos and other information from those meetings on this DOI website.
Prior to and during those meetings, the secretary made some interesting comments about potential future energy sources for the country. Here are a few excerpts from speeches and press releases:
"U.S. offshore areas hold enormous potential for wind energy development near the nation's highest areas of electricity demand—coastal metropolitan centers....More than three-fourths of the nation's electricity demand comes from coastal states and the wind potential off the coasts of the lower 48 states actually exceeds our entire U.S. electricity demand."
"Oil, gas, and coal will be part of that plan, but they alone are not enough....We sit on 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of its oil. Our dependence on foreign oil is a national security problem, an environmental security problem, and an economic security problem."
"We will find the right balance. I would think that most people in America would want us to address the economic security, the national security and the environmental security issues that confront our country."
"We are opening our doors not just to oil and gas and coal, but also to the wise development of solar, wind and wave, biofuels, geothermal, and small hydro on America's lands," Secretary Salazar said.
"On March 11  I issued my first Secretarial Order. The order makes facilitating the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities for the Department. Of course, this would be accomplished in ways that also project our natural heritage, wildlife, and land and water resources."
Perhaps most encouraging for those concerned about national parks were comments the secretary made after the New Orleans meeting last month. Secretary Salazar said the Obama administration isn't at war with the oil and gas industry, but it is pursuing a balanced approach to energy resources that includes not drilling near sensitive environmental areas such as national parks. "We won't be developing oil and gas everywhere," he said. "There are places where we believe it is not appropriate to drill, in the proximity of national parks for example."
In an April 28 speech to DOI employees th secretary noted,
Last week, we finalized the offshore renewable energy rule, which will open the gates for renewable energy development on the outer continental shelf. This Department oversees oceans that have staggering untapped potential for renewable energy, including wind power. In pursuing this unbridled energy source, we have the possibility of surpassing Denmark and other countries as the world’s leader in offshore wind production.
That same speech also included a dose of reality from the secretary that foreshadows some controversial future decisions:
Onshore, we are opening new BLM renewable energy permitting offices to process applications for solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal development. We will need to move this clean power from the new energy frontier to areas of high demand, so we are planning new transmission corridors that can be part of a national electrical supergrid.
As we build a comprehensive energy plan for our country, we must also continue to responsibly develop America’s oil, gas, and coal resources.
Will national parks and similar protected areas fare better under this philosophy than they have in recent years? Based on the above comments, there's certainly hope that decisions will be based on a more reasoned analysis of all the factors involved, and the chance for a more open dialogue on the issues.
As has always been the case, every proposal that affects parks will require study on an individual basis, and that brings us back to Interior's proposed 5-year plan for offshore energy leases.
Since this is a broad plan that identifies large offshore areas, impacts on specific parks may not become clear until individual leases are offered based on the 5-year plan. As park supporters learned from last year's experience with oil and gas leases in Utah, the "devil may be in the details" of individual leases, but these "big picture" plans do lay the groundwork for major future decisions.
If you're interested, you can download a copy of the draft proposed 5-year OCS program. Once you have enough information to make an informed comment, you can do so by mail or online. Click here for instructions for submitting a comment.
The deadline for comments on this step in the process is September 21, 2009.
Are changes really in the wind that will allow a more balanced approach to development of energy on public lands? Secretary Salazar's comments are encouraging, but the political battles in Congress have barely begun.