The oil and gas industry and other minerals producers have complained for many years about the complexity and slow pace of obtaining permits for projects to develop their underground assets. Now, the offshore wind industry is joining the fray.
“There is a fundamental reset needed”
It was just one of several issues cited for the industry’s recent financial struggles, but seemingly intractable permitting issues were central to explanations offered by developers of projects off the northeast Atlantic coast last week. Reuters reports that Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath, BP’s head of gas and low carbon, described the industry as being “fundamentally broken” at an FT Energy Transition conference in London.
“Ultimately, offshore wind in the U.S. is fundamentally broken,” Dotzenrath said. “There is a fundamental reset needed in the speed of permitting, security of permitting, etc…”
Dotzenrath’s comments came as BP said it would take a $540 million write-down on the value of its offshore wind developments in the United States. Norwegian oil company Equinor, BP’s partner in a pair of U.S. projects, announced its own impairment of $300 million.
BP paid Equinor $1.1 billion in 2020 to acquire its 50% share in the projects, and the companies announced in August 2023 they were renegotiating the terms of their agreement amid rapidly evolving market conditions. At that time, then-BP CEO Bernard Looney, who has since resigned, said the company “will not pursue projects” that don’t meet BP’s returns thresholds of 6% – 8%.
It is becoming increasingly evident that many if not all of the U.S. offshore wind projects promoted by the Biden administration are struggling to meet such returns levels. The write-downs by BP and Equinor pale in comparison to the announcement by Danish wind developer Orsted last week that it would take an impairment of its own of roughly $4 billion usd, at the same time cancelling two major projects offshore New Jersey, the Ocean Wind 1 and 2.
Real Reform Will Not Be Easy
All these wind developers cited an array of issues leading to their struggles, including chronic supply chain challenges, inflation, high interest rates, and the complexity and slowness of the permitting process. Dotzenrath said Biden administration regulators had recently presented developers with a 10-point plan to streamline the process, but said even with the offered improvements, it all would remain “challenging.”
Well, yes, the permitting process for energy projects of any kind is challenging. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, there are very valid reasons why this is the case. When pushing for streamlined and accelerated permitting of such projects, it is always key to keep in mind that the vast majority of the complications and delays stem from regulations tied to major U.S. environmental protection laws.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a great example here. The ramp up of development of offshore wind projects along the northeast coast has corresponded with a noticeable rise in beachings of whale carcasses on the New Jersey shore, some of which are part of species listed under the ESA. While the Biden government says it has found no cause-and-effect relationship here, representatives of the fisheries industry and some activists dispute that claim. Regardless of which side is right, the controversy emphasizes the need for these protections to exist.
Energy developers also frequently complain about the Byzantine processes required under The National Environmental Policy Act, under which developers must compile various levels of environmental impact studies prior to proceeding with major projects. It is a process that often consumes years, but it is also a key planning tool for regulators at the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and other federal agencies.
Other major statutes that frequently result in permitting delays include the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. These are all laws that past congresses passed, and Republican and Democratic Presidents alike signed into law to address major environmental issues. The regulations formulated to enforce them all went through lengthy public review processes before they could be finalized.
A true streamlining and reform of these regulatory processes would require major legislation authorizing such reforms, followed by years of efforts by these same agencies to rewrite the rules. The permitting reform language that has been sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) for the last year and a half, as long and complex as it is, would only address a small sliver of the real issue here.
The Bottom Line
The discussion above doesn’t even address the other major area of complexity and delay in permitting processes: The protection of stakeholder rights. Lawsuits opposing permits for rights-of-way and other aspects of major energy projects can hold up developments for years at a time. Is an evenly divided congress that takes weeks just to name a new Speaker of the House ever going to agree on major legislation that would diminish the rights of citizens to protect their property, homes and other interests?
It seems unlikely at best. But make no mistake about it: When energy developers talk about the need to reform or streamline permitting processes in the United States, 10-step plans offered by regulatory agencies can only nip at the edges of the issue.
To invoke real, true reform and streamlining, the actions described above would have to become a major part of any such effort. These major statutes exist for good reasons, and until those reasons no longer exist, it is highly unlikely that clear majorities of elected officials will be able to agree to force major reforms of them.
So, if permitting problems really are at the base of offshore wind’s current financial struggles, the industry may well be fundamentally broken, and its prospects for full recovery dim indeed.