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Feds downsize wind lease area

Federal officials have dropped consideration of almost 100,000 acres from a swath of ocean between Rhode Island and Massachusetts that is being eyed for potential offshore wind energy projects.

The area under consideration now includes more than 164,000 acres of federal water southwest of Nomans Land between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island.

State officials from Massachusetts and Rhode Island praised the revised planning area, but a representative with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on the Vineyard questioned whether it was far enough away from views considered sacred by the tribe.

“It would depend on how close they come,” said the tribe’s historic preservation officer, Bettina Washington.

The tribe would prefer that any projects be located at least 21 nautical miles off the coast to avoid disrupting the traditional views from the island, she said.

Even if that occurs, concerns remain about the effect of potential projects on archeological resources that may exist beneath the ocean floor, she said.

“All that stuff was land,” Washington said.

Underwater archeological work being done off of Block Island for a proposed demonstration wind energy project could yield important information on how to do the research elsewhere, Washington said.

The leasing area originally included about 256,000 acres, or 400 square miles, when it was opened up last year to gauge interest from offshore wind energy developers. Federal officials with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said Friday that it was reduced by eliminating commercially important fishing grounds from consideration. That includes a slice of leasing blocks located roughly in the middle of the proposed planning area.

Officials said they will continue to analyze other factors in choosing which spots will be leased for offshore wind energy projects, including North Atlantic right whale habitat, vessel traffic and visual and cultural resources. An environmental assessment will be completed for the area as well as for specific sites before any leases are issued for the area, according to Bureau of Energy Ocean Management officials.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island officials agreed in 2010 to collaborate on offshore wind energy projects in the area of federal waters that borders the jurisdiction of both states.

Rhode Island’s Special Area Management Plan will control the planning process in the “area of mutual interest” that covers parts of 40 federal outer continental shelf leasing blocks. Projects in the area require approval by governors of both states, and economic benefits from the projects are to be shared, according to the agreement.

In statements released Friday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee praised the refined planning area. “I commend the Obama administration for moving forward in support of offshore wind development in the region, while also respecting our important fishing grounds,” Patrick said.

Patrick has made wind energy a key piece of the state’s renewable energy goals, calling for 2,000 megawatts of the state’s energy to come from wind by 2020. Projects both offshore and on land, however, have faced stiff opposition because of concerns about aesthetics, health threats and the effects of wind turbines on wildlife.

The jury is still out as to what effect offshore wind farms will have on whales, said Robert Kenney, associate marine research scientist at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The only way to determine what the effect of the turbines will be on whales is to have some of the machines installed in the ocean and monitor behaviors among the whales, he said.

Right whales do not generally linger for a long time in the area being considered for wind projects between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Kenney said.

“When they’re here, they’re very rarely here for longer than a week or two,” he said. “It’s not a consistent year-after-year feeding ground like Cape Cod Bay.”

Over the past three decades there have only been three years when the whales were in that area of Rhode Island Sound in large numbers, he said. Most recently, large numbers appeared there in 2010 and 2011, but they didn’t appear to stay for long, Kenney said.

A large number of whales have already been spotted in Cape Cod Bay this year, and several right whales were reported earlier this week in the water between the Vineyard and Nomans Land.

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said that the refinement of the area of shared interest between Massachusetts and Rhode Island is no surprise.

Cape Wind’s parent company, Energy Management Inc., has expressed interest in a series of leasing blocks, most of which were not adversely affected by the reduced area under consideration. The company is continuing to explore other potential locations for offshore wind energy projects even as it moves forward with its proposed 130 turbine project in Nantucket Sound.