The federal government’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), has agreed to mediate Checks and Balances Project’s complaint that the U.S. Coast Guard has refused to provide lawful, taxpayer-funded public records.
Since February, we have been asking the Coast Guard to answer basic questions about its offshore wind study (ACPARS). That’s the study that was supposed to suggest how best to balance the development of offshore wind energy while maintaining the safety of shipping lanes.
The Coast Guard had a Working Group of authors that spent five years under heavy influence from the shipping lobby, eventually producing a study that calls for dramatically limiting space for wind installations on the Outer Continental Shelf and even recommends removing blocks from currently leased areas.
Instead of being transparent about this taxpayer-funded study that could determine the future of the American offshore wind industry, the Coast Guard has repeatedly chosen to ignore or deny our legitimate questions. That includes refusing to say even who the authors of the study were.
OGIS’s message to us is laden with caveats, and OGIS can’t force the Coast Guard to do what it’s supposed to do under the law. It’s a small victory, but we’ll take it.
Perhaps we’re seeing this movement now because there’s a rising chorus of governors, New York state, and federal officials who want the study to be revisited. That’s sent the Coast Guard and the shipping industry’s prominent lobbying arm, the American Waterways Operators (AWO) to rush toward codifying these recommendations into regulatory reality.
The Coast Guard and AWO are co-chairing a joint committee to convert the study’s recommendations into policy guidance without substantive participation by the offshore wind industry. Such action could be extremely detrimental to the offshore wind energy industry.
That’s why we asked the OGIS to do what it can to end this stonewalling by asking it to mediate on our behalf.
Awaiting Answers to Basic Questions
Specifically, we think the public should have the opportunity to inspect records of communications of the study’s Co-Chair Dana Goward, his reported replacement Gary Rasicott, and see the complete roster of Working Group members – which has so far been denied. Using those records, we want to answer these basic questions:
- Did the idea for the study originate with the shipping lobby, as described in the January 2011 Professional Mariner article, Surge in Offshore Wind Proposals Prompt Calls from Industry for Navigation Fairways?
- Who were the 14 members of the Working Group that the Coast Guard refuses to identify?
- Were there any shipping industry executives or staff who were members of the Working Group? (Our source close to the Working Group informed us shipping industry executives were “very engaged” with its work, including AWO Executive Vice President & COO Jennifer Carpenter. That fact has been confirmed by the Coast Guard’s own publication.)
- Why did the Working Group fail to conduct substantive outreach offshore wind energy developers on a study dealing with offshore wind energy development? (According to five offshore wind energy developers and experts we spoke to, the Coast Guard performed very little, if any, real outreach.)
- Did any of the Working Group members ever meet with – or even talk to – European government officials or offshore wind company executives to see how that region balances dense shipping traffic and a decade of offshore wind turbines?
- Have any of the Working Group members actually ever seen an offshore wind turbine in person?
While we are appreciative of OGIS’ mediation efforts, we hope the Coast Guard will not attempt to drag this process out further.
Although we are told to expect an official response to our appeal of the Coast Guard’s decision to redact the names of more than 80% of the Working Group members, the OGIS facilitator notes that our request for public records generated during the study has been “tasked out for search.”
eGlobalTech Poor Performance So Far
This probably means it has likely been assigned to eGlobalTech, a consulting and IT firm “awarded a three year contract with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to provide Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) services to the USCG Management Programs and Policy Division,” in February 2016.
Unfortunately, despite receiving $3 million to process FOIA requests, eGlobalTech’s track record thus far does not inspire confidence. In fact, in response to our request for records of the Working Group’s two co-chairs, Dana Goward and Gary Rasicot, we were told that neither man had worked for the Coast Guard. We actually had to provide supporting documentation showing their employment history before eGlobalTech would respond – and the contractor denied our records request.
No matter how great the influence of shipping industry lobbyists, at some point we hope the Commandant will see that the conduct by those lower on the chain of command is doing the Coast Guard no favors.
After promising to provide us with a final response to our FOIA appeal last week, as of November 9, 2016, we have received neither a reply nor an update from OGIS or the Coast Guard. We will update our readers as soon as we receive a response.
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Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.