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Five companies win leases for California's offshore wind projects in Morro Bay and Humboldt County

Morro Bay Harbor and the Pacific beyond
Thomas Wilmer
The waters off of Morro Bay are planned for floating offshore wind turbines.

The federal government has announced the five companies who won leases today to develop offshore wind turbines in California's coastal waters.

Three of the five areas of ocean are in the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area, while the other two are further north in the Humboldt Wind Energy Area near Eureka. In total, California’s planned offshore wind sites cover about 370,000 acres of ocean.

The three provisional winners of the Morro Bay leases are Invenergy California Offshore, Central California Offshore Wind and Equinor Wind US. A total of $757.1 million was bid on this project between these three firms and the two who won leases in Humboldt County.

Putting floating turbines in these waters would be a massive renewable energy project, estimated to someday generate more clean power than SLO County’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. However, there are many unknowns about how the project would impact the marine environment, the local fishing industry and the local economy. Indigenous tribes, commercial fishers, labor unions and more have raised these concerns and more, though many are generally supportive of the project.

Multi-national fossil fuel company coming to Morro Bay

The three winners of the Morro Bay leases are Invenergy California Offshore, Central California Offshore Wind and Equinor Wind US. The last one is part of a multinational petroleum company headquartered in Norway, known as Equinor.

The company is diversifying their portfolio slightly away from just fossil fuels and towards carbon-free energy projects like the West Coats’s floating offshore wind turbines in development. Equinor already has offshore wind projects off the East Coast of the U.S., though the turbines there are very different from what will be placed off of Morro Bay and Humboldt County.

A map of the three lease areas for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
A map of the three lease areas for the Morro Bay Wind Energy Area.

It likely sounds alarming to environmentalists and renewable energy advocates to have a multi-billion-dollar international oil refining company enter this space. But UC Santa Barbara political science professor Paasha Mahdavi, who studies oil and gas politics, said it's likely not as bad as it sounds from a clean energy perspective.

"You’re providing oil and gas companies an onramp, a way to diversify their industry," Mahdavi said.

Mahdavi said he understands that companies who help fuel the climate crisis through oil and gas production likely aren't many people’s first choice to develop offshore wind. But he said generally, any money these companies spend on renewable energy is money they don’t spend on fossil fuels. That can in turn lead them even further away from investing in things like petroleum or coal.

“They see there's a lot of value in renewables. They're saying, 'Oh wait, this is actually itself an incredibly lucrative enterprise.' And not only that, the industry is very well-positioned to succeed in it.”

Another concern with an international oil company entering this space is that they could choose not to use local labor in San Luis Obispo or Humboldt Counties.

However, the federal government is including incentives to do so in the lease sales, and there are other market incentives for them to use local labor just by nature of the industry. Agreements between companies and groups like indigenous tribes or local fishers, called community benefits agreements, can also strengthen local labor sourcing. Mahdavi said the goal would be to try to keep these projects' economic benefits from going somewhere far away, rather than to local economies.

“That is one fear of large companies. It's a legitimate fear, but there are ways to try to incentivize and allay that," he said.

Molly Morris, president of Equinor Wind US, said in a statement that California is a “key market for Equinor’s offshore wind activities” and that they “aspire to be a leader in growing this new energy industry.”

“Offshore wind on the West Coast could help achieve the state’s clean energy goals, bolster renewable energy sources, and create new jobs and investments in California," Morris said.

The five winners for offshore wind leases.
The five winners for offshore wind leases.

An awkward cooperation between the fossil fuel industry and renewable energy advocates

Laura Deehan is with Environment California, an advocacy group pushing for offshore wind. She said she's sympathetic to those who have a strong negative reaction to the idea of oil companies profiting off of renewable energy, especially given oil spills that have happened in California — including the Central Coast.

“Because there’s a legacy of these companies with pollution, there's a lot of mistrust that they're going to have to overcome. That's just a reality. These companies that have polluted our air and our water and harmed our wildlife are going to have to build trust if they’re going to be tackling this new solution," she said.

Deehan said there is a clear shared interest here and she hopes that with vigilance from groups like hers, oil companies who enter renewable energy spaces can be held accountable.

The view from Morro Bay's State Park Museum of Natural History overlooking Morro Rock and the three iconic smokestacks from afar.
Gabriela Fernandez
The view from Morro Bay's State Park Museum of Natural History overlooking Morro Rock and the three iconic smokestacks from afar.

"We aren't out of the woods yet. I would say we've definitely got to still stay vigilant, to make sure that we're standing up to to the fossil fuel interests who are still profiting a lot from business as usual right now, and have every interest to stay keep us dependent on fossil fuels for as long as they can. So we'll be doing that as well," she said.

Deehan said she’s excited there’s so much interest and money going into offshore wind. She acknowledges the project is raising plenty of environmental concerns, including potential impacts to marine life like fish and whale populations.

But she said ultimately, offshore wind is a major step forward in tackling climate change, which she said is the biggest threat of all.

“The climate crisis is what's leading to the real threats to ocean life. I think in terms of how we do that, offshore wind is one of the best potential sources of energy to get to a 100% clean energy future as fast as we can," Deehan said.

More information on the companies who won leases in both Morro Bay and Humboldt County is available here.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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