The developer of a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island today announced an agreement with environmentalists to protect the critically endangered north Atlantic right whale.
The pact between Deepwater Wind LLC and the Conservation Law Foundation will delay construction of the Block Island Wind Farm by about a month to avoid disturbing the whales, which have been seen feeding in Rhode Island Sound throughout April.
Deepwater said it will not begin pile-driving activities – in which turbine foundations are hammered up to 250 feet into the ocean floor – until May 1. Construction of the five-turbine, 30-megawatt project is set to begin in 2014 or 2015.
The agreement is the latest step between industry and conservationists to preserve a species whose numbers are believed to be as few as 300 and whose protection under multiple federal laws could cause headaches for offshore wind developers.
It follows an announcement in December of a broader agreement brokered by Deepwater and CLF to protect right whales in federal wind energy leasing areas off the coasts of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2012).
“Deepwater Wind’s robust engagement on the issue of right whale protection is a model for the industry,” Tricia Jedele, vice president and director of CLF’s Rhode Island office, said in a statement. “Deepwater Wind has worked diligently to try to understand the key issues for the project area.”
Deepwater said it has amended its project schedule with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, which are jointly overseeing the project because it is located in state waters.
Industry officials say Block Island and Cape Wind, which is a separate 420 MW project off Massachusetts, are the two most likely offshore wind farms to begin construction by the end of the year, which is the deadline to qualify for a lucrative investment tax credit. No offshore wind farms have begun construction in U.S. waters, despite thousands of megawatts having been installed in Europe.
The Deepwater project will supply the majority of Block Island’s electricity needs, with surplus power being shipped to the mainland on a subsea transmission line.
Today’s agreement is modeled after the December agreement in the mid-Atlantic, which included Deepwater, NRG Bluewater Wind and Energy Management Inc., which owns Cape Wind. That agreement was also signed by CLF, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and six other groups.
It aims to reduce or avoid sound impacts from offshore wind site-characterization activities, including surveys to map subsea geology and the installation of weather towers to gauge wind speeds. It does not apply to the future construction of actual wind farms.
Right whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction in part for the oil contained in their heads, are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Disturbing right whales without a permit can result in a $10,000 fine per violation.
Scientists say the animals are threatened by collisions with commercial shipping vessels, military training and dredged material disposal, and could face additional threats from offshore wind development, future seismic surveys for oil and gas, and climate change.
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