Vineyard Wind officials are not waiting for federal officials to return to their desks: The company has reached an agreement with environmental groups to protect North Atlantic right whales and has offered Rhode Island fishermen a $6.3 million deal to compensate them for any economic damages they may incur from the wind farm’s construction and operations.
“We have not voted yet,” said Lanny Dellinger, chairman of a fisheries advisory board of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “We are currently in the process of reviewing (the Vineyard Wind) proposal.”
On both fronts the company’s intention, in part, is to pave a smooth path for the 800-megawatt wind farm project planned south of Martha’s Vineyard, which is on a tight schedule to take advantage of federal investment tax credits that are expiring at the end of the year.
The 84-turbine wind farm is expected to deliver enough electricity to power about 400,000 homes in Massachusetts via an underwater, high-voltage cable that will land on a Barnstable beach, company officials said. As planned, it could be the nation’s first industrial-size offshore wind project.
“Throughout development of the project, Vineyard Wind has strived to work with all stakeholders to proactively resolve potential issues and design the best project possible,” the company’s chief development officer, Erich Stephens, said about the right whale initiative specifically.
It is “especially gratifying to work with these leading environmental groups in developing enhanced protections for right whales,” Stephens said.
The Jan. 22 agreement brings together Vineyard Wind and three conservation groups – National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and Conservation Law Foundation – around the idea that offshore wind plays a major part in the nation’s energy future and can help reduce the effects of carbon emissions from other energy sources. All the groups agree that wind power should occur with minimal effects on coastal and marine wildlife, and that the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are a priority, according to the agreement, which applies only to Vineyard Wind’s current project under development.
Based on a 2017 statistical model, the North Atlantic right whale population has been in decline since 2010 and now numbers around 411. As part of their annual migratory patterns, right whales typically visit Southeastern Massachusetts waters from January to May to feed and socialize. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing rope cause early deaths in the whales, according to scientists.
Under the agreement, Vineyard Wind will adopt seasonal restrictions for pile driving when right whales are likely to be in the area, based on on-board observers, acoustic monitoring, and boat and airplane surveys. The company agrees to seasonal restrictions on geophysical surveys during and after construction, and slower boat speeds, all tied to the presence of right whales in the area. The company also commits to report observations and acoustic detections of right whales to federal officials and to use technology that minimizes noise.
Vineyard Wind has committed $3 million to develop and use technologies to protect the whales and other marine mammals that could be adopted for future offshore wind projects, and to follow science-based principles for conservation.
“The intent of this agreement is to minimize disruption of normal feeding, breeding and migratory behaviors and prevent injury to right whales,” according to the agreement.
Specifically the measures are meant to lower risk from injury to a level approaching zero and to reduce other effects caused by marine noise below that estimated in the federal draft environmental impact statement.
“It’s a huge improvement over what (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) was going to require of them,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, head of the North America office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, in Plymouth. “These are very sensitive areas.”
The agreement should be used by the federal agency as a template for future offshore wind energy sites, Asmutis-Silvia said. More is required of offshore wind development companies than minimal protections for right whales, she said.
“As we ask more of our oceans, we must ensure that we balance the critical need for clean energy with the protection of our majestic right whales and other marine species,” said Priscilla Brooks, who directs ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation.
The foundation is currently a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to protect right whales from harm from commercial lobster gear, a case that is currently on hold due to the federal government’s partial shutdown. A number of conservation groups, along with the state of Massachusetts, are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to protect right whales and other wildlife from use of airguns to survey the mid- and southern Atlantic ocean floor for oil and gas. That lawsuit is also on hold due to the shutdown. The effect of the shutdown on a public comment period for Vineyard Wind’s project is unclear.
For the Rhode Island fishermen, Vineyard Wind is proposing $6.3 million to directly compensate claims of hardship due to the wind farm, and $23 million to further the goals of the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, a planning tool for the state’s Marine Coastal Resource Council.
Dellinger, a lobsterman, had said in December that “the industry doesn’t want a mitigation strategy.”
“The whole process needs to slow down,” he said. “We’re in such a rush.”
Among the points of contention is Vineyard Wind’s planned layout. Commercial fishermen want an east-west grid pattern but Vineyard Wind currently has a northeast-to-southwest grid plan.
Vineyard Wind has, instead, offered to reduce the project’s footprint by 20 percent and to align future projects with an east-west grid pattern, according to a Jan. 16 letter from Lars Pedersen, Vineyard Wind CEO, to the state council. The reduction in the project’s footprint is tied to the use of the largest commercially available turbine, according to the letter. The company announced in late November that it would be using MHI Vestas’ 9.5-megawatt turbines.
The state council has jurisdiction to review the Vineyard Wind project under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. A decision by the council is due Feb. 1 but may be extended if the council and the company agree on the terms.
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