The first utility-scale wind farm proposed for U.S. waters will face a crucial vote in Rhode Island as fishermen’s groups threaten to block the project.
Today, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is expected to decide whether to certify the 84-turbine Vineyard Wind proposal as consistent with state policies that govern the shared use of the ocean.
A key influence on the council’s vote is the opinion of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB), a semiofficial coalition of Rhode Island scallopers, lobstermen and others who are opposed to the wind farm in its current form and have expressed concerns about what a large group of turbines in Atlantic waters will mean for their industry.
The vote injects a dose of drama into the permitting of a project that has the backing of the governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It also raises questions about whether other Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, or developers themselves, can figure out ways to win over fishermen and other local interests.
“Everyone’s watching what’s happening here,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA).
The FAB is holding a separate vote today regarding a $6.2 million package from the project’s developer to compensate for lost fishing revenues.
“I think we’re going to take a dim view of things on Monday,” said Chris Brown, a board member and president of the state’s Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
He and other members want turbines to be arranged from east to west, as well as a wider corridor for boats to travel – 4 nautical miles instead of 2 – within the wind lease area.
Beyond those specific qualms about the proposal, though, they say too little is known about how offshore turbines could disturb fish.
Last December, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said in a draft environmental impact statement that Vineyard Wind would have “likely moderate, but potentially major short-term impacts” on fishing. That has done little to reassure fishermen.
“We really don’t know” what kind of long-term impacts the turbines will have, said Brown.
“If wind farms are a good idea – and they very well may be – they’ll be a good idea in a couple years when we’ve done some research,” he said.
A multistate fight
Rumbles of protests have also emerged in Maryland and New Jersey, where scallopers are demanding compensation for one planned wind farm. In New York, scallopers sued the federal government to invalidate a lease to a wind energy area bought by Equinor ASA for $42 million in 2016. A district court ruled against them in October.
Hawkins said states need to engage with fishermen on an interstate basis. Fishermen can have fishing grounds – or wind turbine lease areas – in common, even if they live in distinct states.
“The states need to be involved in more regional processes,” she said.
Developers have in some cases sought to avoid permitting obstacles by entering into agreements with local governments, conservationists and others. Ørsted AS, for instance, announced this month a partnership with RODA that includes a new task force to study project siting and design.
Vineyard Wind’s developer, Vineyard Wind LLC, has made deals, too: $16 million to a Massachusetts town for the right to bring a high-voltage transmission line ashore, and $12 million for economic development in Massachusetts. Last week, it also joined three conservationist groups in announcing it would observe a series of measures to protect endangered right whales from noise and vessels.
But in the case of Vineyard Wind, the developer and fishermen are negotiating without much clarity on how lobsters and squid will react to the added heat, noise or electromagnetic waves, say fisheries managers.
“We don’t fully understand the species-level impacts,” said Michelle Bachman, habitat analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council.
A race to construction
Time is of the essence for Vineyard Wind, which wants to start construction by the year’s final quarter in order to take advantage of federal tax credits and stay on course with its power purchase agreement with Massachusetts.
If the CRMC rejects the project tomorrow, the company has time to reapply.
“I don’t think it would alter the timetable. It would just add additional work within the timetable,” said Scott Farmelant, spokesman for Vineyard Wind.
One area for compromise, if it becomes necessary, might be the compensation offer.
The company’s $6.2 million offer to fishermen constitutes a fraction of the $30 million to $35 million in fishing revenues that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management said would be lost over a 30-year period.
It includes another $23 million for research into safe-fishing technologies in waters close to offshore structures. But it has attracted negative attention from some influential quarters. Soon after it was unveiled, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) invoked the failure of Massachusetts’ Cape Wind farm, saying its developers tried to “roll opponents.”
“Vineyard Wind ignores the lesson, tries to roll fishermen,” he wrote on Twitter. “Not smart, and bad start for an industry that must share the #ocean with other users.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) caught the ire of fishermen for meeting privately with Vineyard Wind. She’s slated to meet today with the Fishermen’s Advisory Board prior to its vote.
Compensation is “a proxy for doing a good job in planning,” said Brown of the Advisory Board. But he added that the board isn’t aiming to obstruct offshore wind without reason.
“I have a whole bunch of grandchildren who need renewable energy. I just don’t want for us to bear the burden,” he said.
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