NARRAGANSETT – Vineyard Wind cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when Rhode Island coastal regulators determined the $2-billion wind farm proposed in offshore waters to be consistent with state policies.
Although the 84-turbine project is planned in Atlantic Ocean waters south of Martha’s Vineyard where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds lead permitting authority, it needs consistency certifications from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and its counterpart in Massachusetts primarily because it would affect the states’ fishing industries.
With the Massachusetts approval still under consideration, the decision from the Rhode Island coastal council represents a step forward for a project that has divided opinion and would have come as a relief to Vineyard Wind.
“It has a been a long process. It has been a very intense process. It has also been a process when emotions have run high from time to time,” said company CEO Lars Pedersen.
Even though the Rhode Island council ended up voting unanimously in favor of the wind farm, it was far from certain until just a few days ago whether Vineyard Wind would be able to secure the approval at all.
A months-long dispute with Rhode Island fishermen who argue that the wind farm would effectively block them from accessing fishing grounds rich in squid, lobster and other species had snarled the process for the New Bedford-based company.
But a turning point came on Saturday when the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, the group that advises the coastal council on fishing issues related to offshore wind, accepted a compensation package from Vineyard Wind that includes the creation of two funds totaling $16.7 million.
Board members made it clear, however, that they were only approving the deal reluctantly, each of them saying that they felt marginalized by a process that they argue favors offshore wind developers like Vineyard Wind over the fishing industry.
They ended up approving the deal because it front-loads payments to the funds, so the actual value of the package was higher than Vineyard Wind’s original offer last month that spread out the payments more evenly over the projected 30-year life of the wind farm.
But that wasn’t good enough for many at the nearly four-hour-long meeting in a packed lecture hall at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay campus. Two dozen people involved in the Rhode Island fishing industry voiced objections to the compensation offer, the Vineyard Wind project and several others planned in a swathe of waters that stretches southeast through Rhode Island Sound.
“We don’t want the money,” said fisherman Ian Parente. “We want the fishing grounds that we’ve fished in for generations.”
“We will suffer real economic losses,” said Meghan Lapp, of fish processor Seafreeze, who submitted a petition in opposition with 176 signatures. “We demand fair treatment.”
Even members of the industry who spoke in support of the compensation agreement said that they did so because there was no viable alternative.
“We’ve been backed into a corner,” said Grant Moore, president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association. “Is there a way out? No.”
Pedersen acknowledged the contentious nature of the debate.
“It’s a difficult topic,” he said. “We think and we hope and believe that fishing will continue [in the project area]. It’s important that we find ways to make that possible to the extent that we can.”
There were supporters of offshore wind at the meeting. Representatives of the Acadia Center and the Conservation Law Foundation, as well as others, spoke of the need to develop projects in southern New England to meet the region’s energy needs and reduce the emission of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
“We certainly don’t want to displace anybody but we think this is a project that will allow Rhode Island to be a clean energy leader,” said Greg Mancini, of construction trades group BuildRI.
But some kept their comments more broad-based without specifically mentioning Vineyard Wind and one speaker, though emphasizing her support for renewable energy, expressed reservations about the project’s potential impacts.
“Those impacts should be minimized through conversations with all impacted communities from the get-go,” said self-described climate activist Lisa Petrie. “It seems clear that hasn’t happened here.”
As part of the coastal council’s vote, it approved an agreement that will allow it to enforce the terms of the compensation package for the fishermen and will require future development to be configured in a way that’s more acceptable to the industry.
Council chair Jennifer Cervenka described the process as “exceptionally difficult.” Donald Gomez was the only council member to comment on his position, saying he voted yes only because he believed the council’s ruling would be overturned by the federal government if it denied approval.
“I really think there’s an overall negative impact on Rhode Island,” he said.