Offshore wind holds promise for vulnerable bird populations

As the country takes stock of the first months of the Biden Administration, the waters of New England are playing host to the epicenter of one of the major climate commitments made shortly after the president took office. The largest U.S. offshore wind project to date, Vineyard Wind, has received the green light to start building off the coast of Massachusetts, promising to deliver 800 megawatts of energy to over 800,000 homes.

As conservation organizations that are committed to the protection of birds and the ecosystems they need to survive, we support the responsible development of offshore wind, because it is essential to addressing the threats climate change poses not only to people but also to birds and other wildlife.

Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds report found that 43 percent of the state’s breeding birds are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In 2019, the National Audubon Society found that if we let climate change continue unchecked, two-thirds of North American bird species will be vulnerable to extinction. Renewable energy sources — including wind power — are essential to saving the lives of countless birds, in addition to saving our coasts.

Rising seas and coastal erosion are accelerating and inundating roads and homes, as well as the beaches and salt marshes where threatened birds like the Roseate Tern and Salt Marsh Sparrow breed. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is also acidifying the ocean, disrupting food chains and threatening the survival of everything from the severely endangered North Atlantic Right Whale to the lobster fishing industry. Inland, we are experiencing more frequent droughts punctuated by extreme storm events and flooding. Food and habitats for birds and other wildlife are disrupted.

Immediate and bold action is required to reverse these effects.

Responsible development of offshore wind is a cornerstone of our support for this new industry. Conservation organizations are working to ensure that federal and state officials and wind developers work together to incorporate wildlife monitoring into project design and operations and to avoid, minimize and mitigate harm to vulnerable species. As we learn from those monitoring efforts, we will need to adaptively manage this industry.

And, as new technologies are developed for collision detection, we will be on the forefront of understanding how offshore wind affects birds and bats. The Biden Administration’s recent reaffirmation of protections for birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and incorporation of wildlife provisions into Massachusetts’ offshore wind procurement system and Vineyard Wind’s environmental plans all reflect progress toward responsible development.

During the project’s stop-and-start environmental review process, we sought and secured provisions for birds. These included implementing measures to estimate impacts to marine and migratory birds including the Roseate Tern, Red Knot and Piping Plover, which are protected by the MBTA and Endangered Species Act, and require a monitoring program that tracks species of concern in the project area.

While the siting of the Vineyard Wind project already has been carefully chosen to avoid the most important offshore seabird habitats, we will continue to work with developers and regulatory agencies to uphold their commitments to monitoring the effects of the project and adapting their plans accordingly if impacts to wildlife are more severe than anticipated.

The surge in investment in renewable energy is good news for both people and nature. It makes economic sense as well. The Biden Administration has committed to supporting this nascent industry with a goal of supplying 30 gigawatts of power capacity nationally by 2030, generating tens of thousands of jobs.

This is especially important for New England. The wind off our coast is among the strongest in the world over relatively shallow waters, offering an opportunity to supply a densely populated region with the reliable clean energy we need to meet the goal of canceling out carbon emissions by 2050. The promise of offshore wind is enormous, and so is our commitment to ensuring it is fulfilled in a safe and responsible manner.

Heidi Ricci is director of Policy and Advocacy for Mass Audubon in Lincoln.

Joan Walsh is the Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology for Mass Audubon in Lincoln.

Garry George is the clean energy director for the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C.

Originally published on The Herald News on on 05/14/21. Read here.