New Jersey utility regulators used a controversial law Friday enabling them to bypass local authorities and grant approvals needed for an offshore wind project to proceed.
The state Board of Public Utilities granted Orsted, the Danish wind energy developer, approvals toward several easements and permits that authorities in Cape May County had refused to grant the company.
They used an amendment to New Jersey’s offshore wind law passed in 2021 and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy removing most local control over where offshore wind projects come ashore. The law enables an offshore wind developer to apply to the utilities board for an order superseding local control over such projects.
“I just want to assure the public that we don’t take these kinds of actions lightly,” said Joseph Fiordaliso, the board’s president. “There has to be a definite public need for the board to even consider this kind of action. This is something that the majority of us believes will benefit the citizens of New Jersey.”
Fiordaliso said the route of the proposed transmission line will not harm Ocean City or Cape May County aesthetically or economically. The power cable will run from wind turbines that the company says will be located 15 miles offshore and come ashore in Ocean City, where it will run underground along existing roadways and connect to the electrical grid at the site of the former B.L. England power plant in Upper Township.
The vote marked the second time the board acted under the amended law to grant approvals to Orsted when local officials had refused to do so. In Sept. 2022, the board granted the company an order superseding the authority of Ocean City in granting numerous wetlands and other environmental approvals for the same project.
Commissioner Dianne Solomon voted against the measure Friday, calling it “clearly a contentious matter,” adding she believes the board erred in overriding Ocean City’s authority in September.
“We should be seeking more information, not less,” she said.
In its petition to the board, Ocean Wind said it had tried numerous times to obtain approvals directly from Cape May County officials.
“After all the discussions, meetings, and letters exchanged by Ocean Wind and Cape May County, there has been no indication that the county will voluntarily provide Ocean Wind with any of the necessary approvals or consents for environmental permitting, or the required easements,” the applicants wrote.
The project, one of three approved so far for the waters off southern New Jersey, still needs numerous additional state and federal approvals.
The law angered many Jersey Shore communities and residents who objected to their leverage over offshore wind projects being taken away. But state lawmakers defended the law as necessary to ensure that such projects can be completed and help New Jersey move away from the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy.
Officials with Cape May County and Orsted did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
The most commonly voiced objections from opponents include the unknown effect hundreds or even thousands of wind turbines might have on the ocean, fears of higher electric bills as costs are passed on to consumers, and a sense that the entire undertaking is being rushed through with little understanding of what the consequences might be.
Recently, offshore wind opponents have seized on the deaths of ten whales that have washed ashore in New Jersey and New York since December to demand investigations into whether ocean floor preparation work for offshore wind projects caused the animals’ deaths. The most recent death came Friday in New York’s Rockaway Beach.
Two Republican Congressmen from New Jersey said Friday they are introducing legislation to pause work on all current offshore wind projects, prohibit future ones, and investigate the environmental approval process for such projects.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said last month there is no evidence that offshore wind projects have had anything to do with the whale deaths.
“I want to be unambiguous: There is no information supporting that any of the equipment used in support of offshore wind development could directly lead to the death of a whale,” Benjamin Laws, deputy chief for permits and conservation with NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, said during a Jan. 18 media briefing. “There are no known connections between any offshore wind activities and any whale strandings.”