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Ohio Supreme Court allows construction of offshore wind farm in Lake Erie to proceed

The project, which has faced a steep climb toward regulatory approval, is set to be the first freshwater, offshore wind farm in North America.

CLEVELAND — On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of a proposed offshore wind farm in Lake Erie spearheaded by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, ending a long delay and opening the way for construction on a project that has been a matter of public dispute for more than a decade.

In a 6-1 decision, the court decided that the Ohio Power Siting Board acted properly when it granted the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., also known as LEEDCo, the permit to move forward with the project which has been named "Project Icebreaker" by its developers. 

Opponents of the project argued the Siting Board did not collect the proper research necessary to determine whether the turbine farm would harm birds and bats near the shores of Lake Erie. 

Justice Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, penned the court's majority opinion allowing the project to go through while requiring more wildlife data be collected before LEEDCo can operate any turbines.

"Rather than requiring Icebreaker to resolve those matters before issuing the certificate, the board determined that the conditions on its grant of the application were sufficient to protect birds and bats and to ensure that the facility represented the minimum adverse environmental impact,” wrote Brunner.

LEEDCo boasted that Icebreaker, North America's first offshore wind farm to be built in a freshwater habitat, will bring $253 million in local economic impact and create 500 jobs. Will Friedman, president and CEO of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, hailed the project's impact, saying denying the permit would have been a missed opportunity. 

"The Court's decision preserves the economic potential this project can unlock for the region," Friedman said. "Other states are nipping at our heels to attract offshore wind and its economic benefits. We don’t want to squander this opportunity and let 15 years of work slip away to other states eager to capture market share."

Icebreaker has faced a steep climb toward regulatory approval — it has already been greenlit by more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies over its 12-year long proposal process — but the rubber stamp from the state's highest court means LEEDCo can begin to market the six-turbine wind farm to potential customers. 

One-third of the power produced by the wind farm is already contracted to go to the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb called Icebreaker "a great opportunity to grow the wind industry locally as well as provide access to renewable energy for businesses and residents of Cleveland and the region." 

"This project has always been a win-win for our economy and for our environment," Bibb added. "Let's position ourselves to be a leader, not a follower, to other states."

County Executive Armond Budish also released the following statement:

"The County Commissioners' Office and County Prosecutor's Office were instrumental in the beginning stages of this project, which was founded all the way back in 2009. Unfortunately, it was needlessly litigated for years and is a shame that it has taken this long to finally get resolved. Nonetheless, we're thrilled with today’s decision from Ohio’s highest court, which has agreed with the position we’ve held all along. We’re excited to finally move forward with this project – a first of its kind in freshwater in all of North America – which no doubt will benefit the entire Great Lakes region through the creation of new jobs, renewable investment, and clean energy."

The case was brought to the Supreme Court by two Bratenahl residents that described themselves as birding and boating enthusiasts concerned about the project's environmental impact. 

Susan Dempsey, one of the two plaintiffs opposing the wind farm, was disappointed with the court's findings. "If we don't look at it now, will we look at it later? And when will it be too late then?"

LEEDCo accused the plaintiffs of being bankrolled by "fossil fuel interests." 

Prior to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2019, Murray Energy, then the largest coal company in the United States, paid for the plaintiff's legal fees. The company's founder, coal baron Robert Murray, died in 2020. 

The plaintiff's denied being in Big Coal's pocket, telling WKSU in March that since Murray's death and the company's sale to American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc., they had received no further assistance.

LEEDCo has long swatted away claims that Icebreaker would pose a risk to wildlife in the area around the wind farm. It also says the turbines, which will cover .000002% of Lake Erie's surface area would not be visible on most days. 

"On a clear day," LEEDCo said, "a person standing on the downtown Cleveland lakeshore holding their arm out would see turbines no taller than half a thumbnail."

Wind energy and other forms of renewable energy have been a fixture of President Joe Biden's environmental infrastructure goals. Biden's administration has targeted 30 gigawatts of electricity capacity to be produced by offshore windfarms by 2030. 

LEEDCo estimates the offshore wind business will produce $70 billion of economic activity by 2030. Ohio has no choice to but to get on board with renewables, said Ronn Richard, LEEDCo's board chairman and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. 

"The Cleveland Foundation has supported Project Icebreaker from its inception because this is about more than clean energy – this is about a healthy economy and a healthy community," said Richard.  "This decision will create jobs, attract talent from outside our region and retain the best and brightest minds from right here in Ohio. 

"It also shows that we’re committed to improving health outcomes for Ohioans by cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s our hope that LEEDCo can now resume selling the remainder of the power and turn this dream into a reality."

Ohio U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur said:

"Energy innovation has faced a lot of headwinds in Ohio as of late. But now, the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision puts the wind in our sails by offering a window on a promising technology which can diversify America's energy portfolio. Ohio needs a comprehensive energy strategy to attract industry investment, lower costs on consumers and businesses, and create good-paying jobs and new opportunity here in our centrally located, resource-abundant region. The Lake Erie Icebreaker Wind project is exactly the kind of forward-thinking plan that will move us in the right direction. As Chair of the House Energy and Water Subcommittee, I am committed to helping Ohio secure its energy future."

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