Bill would guide energy projects in state waters
Large wind farms could be constructed in state waters under legislation passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives Wednesday that critics said could aid a controversial wind energy project in Buzzards Bay.
The only pending project directly affected by the legislation is the 120-turbine wind farm proposed by developer Jay Cashman. Cashman is a friend of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who failed last year to get passed a similar measure that would have helped the farm to be built.
“There is only one project on the table that this affects right now,” said John F. Quinn, a Democrat from Dartmouth. He said he wants more public input before any permanent changes are made to ocean regulations, in part because there could be similar projects proposed along the state’s coast. “This is a dramatic change – let’s not slip it in.”
The wind farm provision is part of the Oceans Management Act, a wide-ranging bill that would guide the location of renewable energy projects and other activities in state waters.
Most of Massachusetts waters are designated ocean sanctuaries, and structures in them are prohibited unless state environmental regulators agree they are needed by “public necessity and convenience.” The ocean protection legislation passed this week is designed, in part, to clarify that renewable energy projects are allowed in these waters.
The Senate passed a version last year that most environmentalists applauded, allowing for the construction of small-scale wind power projects in most state waters, but only if they are consistent with a yet-to-be-developed Ocean Management Plan that would map out the best places to put them. Under the Senate bill, that plan would have to be completed in 24 months.
But the House version is vaguer, critics say, allowing any wind project in state waters and not requiring that they be consistent with an Ocean Management Plan. The House version also sets no deadline for the ocean plan, they say.
“This is the first time in the nation any state has contemplated a comprehensive plan to manage development of the oceans,” said Priscilla Brooks of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental advocacy group. The House version, she said, gives little teeth to any Ocean Management Plan.
Supporters of the House version say the language in no way was meant to give Cashman any advantage to build his wind farm, and point out that any wind farm project has to undergo environmental review. The Cashman wind farm was denied in 2006 because the state environmental secretary at the time said it was forbidden under the Ocean Sanctuaries Act and it could threaten an endangered bird species.
DiMasi spokesman David Guarino said that the speaker was aware of the language in the bill but that its sole focus was to “encourage renewable energy.”
Representative Frank Smizik, a Brookline Democrat who is House chairman of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, said the House version would allow needed renewable energy to be built in state waters as soon as possible. He said he didn’t want projects to go through the same seven-year permitting process that a proposed 130-turbine wind farm in federal waters in Nantucket Sound has endured.
“We wanted it to be a little less tight” than the Senate version, Smizik said. “Our view is the [ocean management plan] is a blueprint, not a zoning law. We need wind farms.”
House and Senate negotiators will meet in coming weeks to come up with compromise language. If both chambers agree, the measure would then land on Governor Deval Patrick’s desk.
Ian Bowles, state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said despite the differences between the Senate and House versions, it is important to note the state is on its way to having one of the first planning documents to guide ocean development.
“This legislation represents an important leadership opportunity for the Commonwealth,” Bowles said. “Massachusetts would be the first state in the nation to enact a comprehensive ocean planning law.”
By Beth Daley
15 February 2008
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