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If you spend any amount of time listening to arguments both for and against the expansion of wind energy, you may be surprised that an organization known for promoting the protection of birds would support offshore wind power in the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is because Audubon knows that a rapidly warming world causes more harm to birds than wind turbines located in the right places and operated with birds in mind.
What’s bad for birds is bad for people. Birds are an indicator species, found in almost every habitat on earth. By studying how a changing climate affects them, we can understand which of our communities are most at risk of climate threats like floods, storms, fires, and droughts. And these are often communities with the least resources available to protect themselves or rebuild after a disaster.
This week marked the first offshore wind auction for the Gulf of Mexico region, in federal waters off the coast of Louisiana. As one of the country’s oldest organizations dedicated to the protection of wildlife, Audubon supports this development, which represents a historic moment to protect the Gulf’s biodiversity, wetlands, forests, and the flora and fauna that call these places home.
It is unfortunate, however that the lease terms, as written, will not fully benefit the people and communities of the Gulf coast. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency that oversees offshore wind lease sales, the leasing program is not included in the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative, a federal commitment to allocate 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments to underserved communities. What this means in practice is that final lease sale notices will not provide bid credits for community benefits nor job training for underserved communities.
Offshore wind has the potential to be a boon to our energy economy, but not if it is inequitably managed. Community benefit agreements and job training have been a key part of successful offshore wind development in other regions like California, allowing communities to share in some of the profits of offshore wind with their neighbors. The people of Louisiana – particularly the Black, Indigenous, and low-income communities – deserve an equitable federal permitting and leasing process to counter decades of exclusion from oil and gas development and to ensure they are able to benefit from energy produced at their doorstep. Implementing these provisions, in addition to passing legislation like the Reinvesting in America’s Shoreline Economies and Ecosystems (RISEE) Act that would create a revenue sharing model that funds coastal restoration, would ensure that the long-term benefits of these projects extend beyond protection from climate threats. There should be concrete, immediate economic benefits to coastal communities, too.
Responsibly sited and managed offshore wind in the region is good for every living thing in the Gulf. Conservationists, community leaders, and energy producers can all work together to ensure that any project avoids, mitigates, and minimizes threats to surrounding ecosystems and communities. While careful site planning and technology to reduce collisions can be deployed to protect wildlife, it would be in BOEM’s best interest to allow bid credits for job training for local communities that have been most impacted by pollution of energy development. It is common sense to make sure that the neighborhoods and people close to energy development are not harmed by them.
Audubon recognizes that any major man-made undertaking carries some inherent risk and disruption to wildlife. But the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the risk of allowing our environment to be imperiled by ever-climbing global temperatures and climate threats. Billions of birds and other wildlife are threatened by a changing climate. By taking action now to invest in clean energy like offshore wind and making a meaningful difference in reducing emissions, we can ensure a better future for all life in and around the Gulf.