It has been promoted as a groundbreaking document that will zone the waters off Rhode Island to determine the best locations for wind turbines with the least impact on the ecosystem and local fishing industry.
The two years and more than $8 million of research will help generate standards and regulations that would apply to any development within the covered area. Governor Carcieri particularly likes that the project should expedite the permitting process and help Rhode Island in its quest to have the first offshore wind farm in the country.
Yet, some state officials and environmentalists were surprised to learn this week that the long-awaited ocean-mapping work did not locate the most viable areas for wind turbine projects – such as developer Deepwater Wind’s $1.3-billion, 100-turbine proposal – in nearby federal waters.
“I was shocked,” said Michael M. Tikoian, chairman of the state Coastal Resources Management Council. The agency regulates coastal development and oversees the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) project. “The objective was to pinpoint spots and we were never, ever told that we couldn’t do that for the federal waters.”
CRMC Executive Director Grover J. Fugate, who leads the effort, said that simply isn’t true. The Ocean SAMP – for which the first of three public hearings was held Tuesday – is a critical step in a process that state officials and stakeholders have known about all along.
Opening the dispute on Tuesday, Tikoian said, “Where is the map showing the [suggested] renewable-energy site in the federal waters?”
It isn’t in the SAMP, nor will it be, Fugate answered. He explained the document can only speak of suitable zones within state waters despite the fact that the area researched extends well into waters under federal jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction generally begins three miles offshore.
The SAMP does recommend a zone – an area within state waters to the south and west of Block Island – for turbine projects, such as Deepwater’s smaller eight-turbine proposal. But Fugate said federal agencies may file objections with the document if it immediately includes suggested areas on their turf. Opposition could delay approval by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which produces funding and oversight for the CRMC.
Fugate said the procedure, which is spelled out in federal regulations, calls for NOAA approval first and then a geographical extension request from Rhode Island that, if approved, would allow the document to be applied to nearby federal waters.
“We know the area [the location most viable for wind turbines in the nearby federal waters], but any reference to federal statutes and waters is forbidden,” Fugate said. He also said he has recent e-mails from the NOAA warning of such an inclusion.
Said Tikoian, “Then why did we spend so much money to study federal waters and not include them? And I want to see the e-mails. We want to ensure accountability and that we paid $8 million of the taxpayers’ money on what we said we were going to do.”
CRMC member Donald Gomez raised similar concerns. The money that paid for the mapping came from federal grants and the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund, a pool of money from a surcharge on utility bills. Deepwater also reimbursed the state for some of the research.
Tricia K. Jedele, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island Advocacy Center, said at every SAMP meeting she attends, she learns something new and, while that is usually great, hearing this omission from the document less than two months before the CRMC votes on it Oct. 12 is “troubling.”
“Since the beginning, the map that has been used for the SAMP area included federal waters,” she said Wednesday. “It was our understanding that we were putting together a management plan, based on science, on this area, and we would be seeking consistency.”
Fugate said that is exactly what the state wants achieved in the end, but Tikoian and others had a “simplistic understanding or misunderstanding” of the process and “I can’t help that.”
The Ocean SAMP includes data collected by URI experts and other scientists that show areas within federal waters because that is what was needed to be researched and gathered to have consistency and propose the best regulations, Fugate said. He said the NOAA has been part of the technical advisory committee for the project all along, and that a federal agency known as the Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior, already has and plans to use the research.
He also said the MMS, which is responsible for leasing offshore ocean space to wind-farm operators, praises the state’s approach to new development pressure and recommends other states follow suit.
“Why it’s confusing to them, I don’t know, but this has always been the case that we had to go through this step-wise fashion to get to where we wanted,” Fugate said. “Nothing has changed. Those policies will become binding in the federal waters and Rhode Island is clearly out in the lead on this.”
John Torgan, baykeeper for Save The Bay, the state’s largest environmental group, said the step-by-step process is how group leaders understood it to be as well. Yet, Torgan said Tikoian’s concerns about extending the SAMP to federal waters are legitimate because the process isn’t clear.
On a unanimous request from the CRMC, Fugate and staff are preparing a second document to spell out the process and a time line for the steps. The board gave Fugate an Oct. 1 deadline for the supplemental piece.
Calling the SAMP a “scientific blueprint,” Governor Carcieri’s spokeswoman Amy Kempe said, “At the end of the day, the scientific research and analysis will establish the most promising site for offshore wind turbines in state and federal waters.”
Said Tikoian, “Our feeling is we have two more meetings and, at the end of the day, the call is the council’s to make. The work has been done. The information is there. We may just put it in and work it out with the federal government later.”
To read the proposed Ocean SAMP, go to http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp/