SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Biden administration is racing against the electoral clock to get a first-of-its-kind marine sanctuary certified in case Donald Trump or another Republican takes the White House and ditches the conservation effort along California’s Central Coast.
But President Joe Biden and fellow top Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom face another obstacle of their own making — clashing commitments to both protect marine life and meet aggressive clean energy goals by installing floating wind turbines in federal waters.
The Biden administration has proposed a marine sanctuary, backed by local indigenous tribes, that would stretch along more than 100 miles of the California coastline north of Los Angeles. Near its northern boundary sits a 400-square-mile zone that the administration has leased to offshore wind developers.
California is counting on Central Coast offshore wind to power as many as 5 million homes by 2030 — which is also one-sixth of Biden’s U.S. offshore wind goal. The early stage complications show how Democrats’ clean energy goals face conflicting internal priorities as well as external threats like Republicans retaking the White House. How they balance competing interests here could serve as a model — of how to do it right or not — for other ocean projects that pit energy development against conservation.
Wind developers say the sanctuary as proposed will imperil their projects.
“This is a significant risk for Morro Bay leaseholders,” said Molly Croll, Pacific offshore wind director for the American Clean Power Association, which represents the three companies that have leases in the area, in an email.
The 5,600-square-mile Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would be the first indigenous-nominated marine sanctuary in the federal network, according to the Biden administration. It would preserve biologically rich waters and submerged native burial sites in a space about the size of Connecticut.
The area at the heart of the dispute is Morro Bay, one of the most sacred indigenous sites in the region and one of just two points where offshore developers can connect electric cables to the grid. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in August proposed carving a lane through the sanctuary to allow companies to lay power lines along the seafloor.
The tribes want the Morro Bay area back in the sanctuary. The developers want it out — at least until they can connect the cables to shore.
NOAA is up against a 2024 deadline to finalize the sanctuary before a potential administration change. If Republicans were to win the presidential contest, the proposal’s prospects would diminish significantly, sanctuary supporters believe.
“It would be a missed opportunity to go into an election cycle and potentially different leadership and not have this designated,” said Violet Sage Walker, chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, which nominated the sanctuary. “I’m hoping that people realize how urgent this is.”
Republicans have been sending mixed messages on conservation and energy development lately, sounding alarms over East Coast whale deaths that they have tried to tie to wind energy development while also mocking federal efforts to protect the endangered Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Eighteen dolphin and whale species, including blue whales, humpback whales and orcas frequent the proposed Central Coast sanctuary area, according to NOAA’s draft environmental impact statement.
Three developers won leases last year to install 1,000-foot turbines 20 to 30 miles off the coast that would float in the deep water, anchored by cables to the sea floor. They’re major players in the offshore space: Golden State Wind, which is jointly owned by Ocean Winds and the Canada Pension Plan; Invenergy’s Even Keel Wind; and Norwegian state-owned company Equinor.
Biden and Newsom have also launched initiatives to conserve 30 percent of California and federal waters and lands by 2030, and they’ve each expanded commitments to include tribes in natural resources management.
NOAA is analyzing filings from the developers, the tribes and thousands of other people. The agency will decide whether it will make any changes to its current plan, said Paul Michel, a policy coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
“We’re in the messy business of trying to address lots of issues at the same time,” Michel said in an interview.
The federal agency drew the sanctuary in 2021 to avoid the wind patch. The initial protected zone stretched south from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary along 152 miles of coast to the Channel Islands.
An August update, meant to further accommodate wind development, trimmed the protected coastline to 134 miles, carving out a 58-mile-long corridor through Morro Bay while adding 18 miles further south.
The tribes consider the inhabitants of the ocean, which they have depended on for food and other necessities for thousands of years, to be their kin.
“It’s a deep connection,” said Karen White, council chair of the Xolon Salinan tribe. “When you’re connected to an ancient people like we are and a land that’s so ancient as well, it’s very spiritual.”
At least five tribes want NOAA to go back to the first proposal for unbroken protection.
“NOAA is leaving our ocean relatives unprotected and unaccounted for in one of the most important places for all our tribes in the region,” said two Salinan groups, two Chumash groups and a band of Mission Indians in a letter to the agency last month.
The developers want the carveout extended to Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, another critical place to connect offshore wind energy to the electric grid in addition to the one at Morro Bay.
The developers also want flexibility to lay cables through the sanctuary, since they don’t know yet where they’ll put them. The estimated two dozen cables need to be far apart from one another to accommodate repairs. They need to avoid a veritable minefield of obstacles from sensitive reefs and shipwrecks to indigenous cultural sites that were established before the ocean rose, fiber optic cables and an old chemical dump.
The developers emphasize the sanctuary and the wind project can coexist, and are complementary, since renewable energy will help reduce emissions that harm ocean life. The tribes acknowledge that, while each has different priorities.
“We’re confident that NOAA, sanctuary proponents, and leaseholders can develop a solution — whether that’s regulatory or a phased approach,” said Croll, the leaseholders’ representative.
Only one tribe in the area, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, is federally recognized. The designation means NOAA is required to engage in formal government-to-government relations with them.
The Santa Ynez Band, with a reservation in Santa Barbara County, accepts the gap at Morro Bay, calling it a pragmatic solution to the permitting concerns in an October filing with NOAA.
But The Xolon Salinan, which claim one of the most established connections to Morro Bay and its distinctive round rock, want an unbroken preserve. They say the cables can be laid (carefully) through the sanctuary without cutting out the Morro section.
White, of the Xolon Salinan, said her ancestors fought battles over the Morro Bay area, and in recent decades the tribe has been feuding over who has ancestral claims to it.
The proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary was nominated in 2015 by Fred Collins III, who founded the nonprofit Northern Chumash Tribal Council in 2006 and died in 2021.
The Xolon Salinan, the Santa Ynez Band and other tribes have said in NOAA filings that Collins wasn’t indigenous. The dispute could further complicate the project: White said that if NOAA uses Collins’ preferred name for a sanctuary at Morro Bay, the tribe might seek legal advice.
A State University of New York anthropology professor submitted a letter on behalf of the Xolon Salinan, the Santa Ynez Band and two other Chumash bands saying Collins was descended from Mexican immigrants, arguing the agency dishonors the other tribes by using Collins’ name for the sanctuary.
Collins’ daughter, Walker, dismissed the claims as a “distraction.”
“We are not responding to that because I don’t want to get involved in any type of hate speech or negativity or calling people names,” Walker said. “In the end it takes away from [the fact that] this is a good idea and it would be a good idea even if the tribes weren’t involved.”
Michel, from NOAA, said a name change is among the things the agency is considering.
An idea the developers said is gaining traction is a proposal to start with a gap for the cables and then expand the sanctuary later to create seamless protection, taking cues from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I think we’re optimistic that we can find a creative solution,” said Tyler Studds, CEO of Golden State Wind.
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) shares their optimism.
“It’s just a matter of tweaking things so that we can reach a win-win,” Carbajal said.