NARRAGANSETT – Less than three weeks before Rhode Island coastal regulators are set to vote on a key approval for its $2-billion offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind has yet to come forward with a compensation package for the state’s commercial fishermen who say that the layout of the company’s 84 turbines will block access to valuable Atlantic Ocean fishing grounds.
The Coastal Resources Management Council granted the New Bedford company a reprieve Nov. 27, delaying a vote on the application for what’s known as a “consistency certification” for the 800-megawatt wind farm specifically to give the developer more time to reach an agreement with fishermen who catch squid, lobster, Jonah crab and other species in the waters targeted for development between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.
But with the Jan. 22 council vote fast approaching, members of the state’s Fishermen’s Advisory Board complained at a meeting Thursday that they still haven’t seen a payment offer from Vineyard Wind. They also singled out Gov. Gina Raimondo for criticism, saying that her administration, which is leading discussions with Vineyard Wind, isn’t adequately representing the fishing industry’s interests.
“The deal you need to make is with the Rhode Island fishing industry and our partners in Massachusetts, not the governor,” said board chairman Lanny Dellinger.
When pressed by Dellinger and others, Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Pedersen acknowledged that time is growing short, but would not commit to submitting a proposal before Jan. 15, when the board is scheduled to vote on a recommendation to the council.
The sticking point is settling on solid numbers for the amount of seafood caught in the project area.
“It’s fair to say that while we have had discussions we are not in agreement yet on how to interpret the data, how to understand the data and how to estimate the impact of the data,” Pedersen said.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has compiled information from numerous sources, but, according to Jason McNamee, the agency’s marine fisheries chief, while the numbers for squid are relatively strong, others are more speculative, particularly for lobster and crab.
And, much to the ire of the board and other fishermen at the meeting, McNamee and other scientists at the DEM have been directed only to put together data on the direct value of seafood caught by fishermen, and not the economic impact for other parts of the industry, such as fish processors or other businesses that benefit. McNamee described the analysis as “very simplistic.”
While he would not release a value for a possible compensation package, based on past reports by the DEM, it could be in the tens of millions of dollars. If the industry-wide effect were factored in, the value would be much higher.
“We have to look at the entire picture,” said Eric Reid, of fish processor Seafreeze Shoreside. “The math problem is exponentially greater than what has been presented in this room.”
The Rhode Island coastal council has jurisdiction even though the wind farm wouldn’t be located in state waters because under federal law any project that would affect fishing or other Rhode Island activities or resources must be consistent with state policies.
Securing the certification next month would keep Vineyard Wind on track to start construction at the end of next year and tie up expiring federal tax credits that are key to the low price the company offered Massachusetts when that state selected the project for offshore wind development. A favorable vote would also keep it at the front of a pack of developers who want to follow the test project installed two years ago off Block Island and build large offshore wind farms on the Atlantic coast.
The current impasse comes after the fishing board’s voted Nov. 19 against the Vineyard Wind project, with its members saying that the orientation of the company’s turbines and their tight spacing would make it impossible for fishing boats to safely navigate through the wind farm.
When Vineyard said it was too late to change the entire layout and still stay on schedule, talk turned to compensation.