PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Two years and more than $8 million later, Rhode Island is a critical step closer to protecting its waters with eco-friendly standards and regulations for offshore wind turbine developers.
The state Coastal Resources Management Council unanimously approved the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) Tuesday night. The hefty document needs final approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which produces funding and oversight for the CRMC.
The ocean-mapping work not only identifies the best locations for wind turbines in state waters, but also suggests a suitable site in nearby waters under federal jurisdiction. State officials ultimately want the SAMP to govern that area – federal waters generally begins three miles offshore – and be a model for other coastal states.
Governor Carcieri also championed the plan because it should expedite the permitting process and aid the state’s quest to have the first offshore wind farm in the country.
“We clearly lead the nation with this adoption,” said CRMC Executive Director Grover J. Fugate, who coordinated the colossal undertaking.
Jennifer McCann, a chief writer of the document, added, “It was truly a collaborative effort. Everybody recognized the value of it and we got it right.”
Nearly 2,000 written comments and concerns were considered by the team. Changes made because of the suggestions include creating a habitat advisory board to complement a fishermen’s advisory board that was already planned.
Chairman Michael M. Tikoian and other council members also criticized an earlier draft because it didn’t 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. In those highly publicized August spats, Tikoian said the project was sold to taxpayers and stakeholders as a groundbreaking document that would find such sites, so including the research would show accountability for the money spent.
Fugate initially argued any reference to federal statutes and waters is forbidden. Including them could result in federal agencies filing objections with the document and ultimately delaying approval by NOAA. Fugate also said the well-known process called for 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.
Therefore, the earlier draft only recommends 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.
The approved SAMP, however, goes “as far as the federal agencies will let us go,” Tikoian said.
Maps from the research that show a preferred renewable energy zone in federal waters is included. It recommends an area – which covers 400 square miles of federal waters in Rhode Island Sound located directly south of Sakonnet Point between Block Island to the west and Martha’s Vineyard to the northeast – that is included in Rhode Island’s memorandum of understanding with Massachusetts. That July 2010 agreement to coordinate efforts to develop offshore wind power uses the Ocean SAMP as its guide.
To soften the inclusion, the document reads, “The CRMC is well aware that the identification of these areas in federal waters or CRMC’s recommendations that federal agencies consider these areas are not an enforceable policy or enforceable component of the Ocean SAMP; Rather they are merely recommendations to the federal agencies with jurisdiction for further refinement and consideration.”
NOAA has been part of the technical advisory committee for the project all along, Fugate said. In addition, a federal agency previously known as the Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior, already plans to use the research. That agency, 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.
Yet Tricia K. Jedele, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island Advocacy Center, said Tuesday that NOAA submitted last-minute recommendations to the SAMP team that have yet to be discussed. She and one other environmentalist suggested the CRMC delay its approval until NOAA’s concerns – which included another, time consuming approval process the state may have to go through – are thoroughly considered.
The council said the document, which they highly praised, is only a “first step” and changes can and will be made when necessary.
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