President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Somerset, Massachusetts.
President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Somerset, Massachusetts. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP Photo

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President Joe Biden moved to remove hurdles to offshore wind development in the southern Atlantic on Wednesday, saying it was among many executive actions he was taking to combat the climate crisis.

“We’re going to make sure the ocean is open for the clean energy of our future,” said Biden, speaking at a site poised to become the first offshore wind manufacturing hub in Massachusetts, “and [do] everything we can do to give a green light to wind power on the Atlantic coast.” 

But it wasn’t clear how Biden’s directive to the Secretary of the Interior to “advance clean energy development” in the federal waters of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas would evade a Trump-era ban on offshore wind in the region, and most clean energy advocates said Congress still needs to step in. 

“Responsible offshore wind power is key to protecting climate-vulnerable birds and communities. The administration’s plan is a welcome boost for the industry,” said Greg Andeck, director of strategy and government relations for Audubon North Carolina. “Ultimately, we’ll also need Congressional action to permanently remove the ban on new offshore wind development.” 

The stakes are especially high in North Carolina, where offshore wind’s potential to cut climate pollution and create jobs is vast but little realized, with just two projects under development. One, called Wilmington East, was leased days before the 10-year ban took effect on July 1.  

Issued in the late stages of the 2020 election campaign, the moratorium on offshore lease sales was aimed at oil and gas — an effort to win over voters in states like Florida and North Carolina that largely oppose drilling. Though it wasn’t specified in the order, the Trump administration later confirmed it included wind

Early in Biden’s presidency, advocates and wind proponents in Congress settled on legislation, rather than a new executive order, to reverse the Trump move. A law would be more permanent, the reasoning went, and it wasn’t clear a presidential act would stand up to court challenges: A federal judge ruled in 2019 that Trump couldn’t simply reverse an Obama drilling ban with a pen stroke. 

“The only sure-fire way to avoid intensive litigation is to pass legislation,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition. 

Joined by her Republican colleague Rep. David Rouzer of Wilmington, Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, has pushed repeatedly to lift the moratorium in Congress, introducing a stand-alone bill and adding language to three different House-passed bills: the Build Back Better bill, now almost certainly dead; the COMPETES act, designed to help the United States compete with China; and just last week, the National Defense Authorization Act. 

All now sit in the Senate, but advocates consider the latter their best hope for passage. While Kollins welcomed the Biden announcement, she stressed: “I hope what it does is bring attention to the need for legislation, and that we can continue to get enough Republicans on board that [the language] stays in the NDAA.” 

The National Ocean Industries Association, formerly an offshore oil and gas trade group that now also promotes offshore wind, agreed. “The most durable, and perhaps only, fix will be through legislation,” said Justin Williams, the group’s vice president for communications. 

Even from advocates with the rosiest takes on the Biden announcement, there’s little argument that laws are preferable to executive orders.  

“Congressional action is always better,” said Athan Manuel, the D.C.-based director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection program. “It’d be great if Richard Burr, who is retiring, would say, ‘I want to leave a legacy for my state, and do more on offshore wind,’” Manuel said of the senior senator from North Carolina. “We need Republicans like him.” 

But some wondered if the White House had devised a legal pathway for getting around the Trump moratorium, and if Wednesday’s announcement was the first step in a textbook process for taking public comment or establishing regulations. 

Biden didn’t call the Trump action a ban or make mention of lifting it, instead saying that his “predecessor’s actions had only caused confusion” for the Southeast. The deliberate wording could be part of the strategy.  

“The way Trump did it was so sloppy,” said Manuel. About whether the former president properly invoked his authority to ban offshore wind, he said, “there’s still a lot of back and forth.” 

No matter what, said Sam Salustro, vice president of policy at the Business Network for Offshore Wind, the Biden announcement sends an important message to his industry. “It’s continuing to show to the international market, and the supply chain, and developers, that offshore wind will exist in the entire U.S. coastline area,” he said. “That’s a very strong market signal to send to the world.” 

In an emailed statement, Rep. Ross praised Biden while vowing to continue to push to lift the moratorium in Congress. 

“I applaud President Biden for outlining a bold plan to combat the climate crisis, including actions to boost the offshore wind energy industry in my home state. We can use the same wind that powered the Wright Brothers’ flight more than 100 years ago to power homes, create jobs, and help save our planet,” Ross said. “I will keep up my work here in Congress to support the offshore wind industry, but we cannot afford to wait.”

Elizabeth Ouzts

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.