PROVIDENCE – In the selection of Gina Raimondo as the next U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the offshore wind industry would get a champion in Washington.
What influence she could bring to bear for the emerging energy sector remains to be seen, but if confirmed to her new position in the Biden cabinet, Raimondo would oversee federal fisheries regulators who have raised some of the concerns about potential negative impacts of erecting what could be many hundreds of wind turbines in the ocean waters off southern New England.
It’s those concerns that have played a major role in delaying the approval process for the first set of large wind farms proposed in the nation.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an arm of the Department of the Interior, has permitting authority over the multibillion-dollar projects, which are all planned for the Atlantic Ocean waters off Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But both federal fisheries management and coastal zone management are under the aegis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce.
“Other than BOEM, NOAA is probably the most important permitting agency for offshore wind,” said Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Maryland-based U.S. Wind who, as the former head of Deepwater Wind, has led the development of the industry in the United States.
The expectation to get things moving for the industry will be high. President-elect Joseph R. Biden has targeted a carbon-free power sector by 2035. For the New England and mid-Atlantic states, offshore wind offers the most promising renewable energy option of scale.
In Raimondo’s six years as Rhode Island governor, the Ocean State has not only become home to the first offshore wind farm in the country – an array of five turbines off Block Island completed in 2016 – but the state also signed up for a second project that would be more than 10 times bigger when built, and then, this past fall, requested proposals for yet another.
If Raimondo’s plans come to fruition, offshore wind would be able to power every home in Rhode Island and meet nearly two-thirds of the state’s total electric needs.
“She’s done a lot to kickstart the industry in Rhode Island,” said David Hardy, CEO of North American operations for Orsted, the largest offshore wind developer in the world. “We hope that she’ll bring that leadership style to Washington.”
Those in the fishing industry are also hopeful. The Block Island Wind Farm was built only after a rigorous planning process that aimed to minimize conflicts with fishermen and other ocean users. Commercial fishermen want to make sure that any development going forward fully accounts for their needs.
“I think it’s fantastic to have someone that does have experience with offshore wind and knows the extent of the conflicts,” said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group representing fishing interests in the development of offshore wind. “She understands coastal communities and their concerns. I think there is a real opportunity here.”
Due in varying degrees to the success of the Block Island Wind Farm, the relatively shallow waters and strong winds off southern New England, and the proximity to population centers with big electric demands, a swath of ocean stretching southeast from a point between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island has become ground zero for the offshore wind business in the United States.
After Providence-based startup Deepwater Wind tested the waters with its 30-megawatt project near Block Island, corporate titans from Europe, where the global industry started three decades ago, came in with bigger proposals. Danish company Orsted bought Deepwater and with utility Eversource is now pursuing, among other plans, the 400-megawatt Revolution Wind proposal that the Raimondo administration selected in 2018 to supply power to Rhode Island.
But it was another company, Vineyard Wind – which is backed by Danish and Spanish interests – that submitted the first application to the federal government for a project of real size, an 800-megawatt wind farm that would supply power to Massachusetts.
It was also the Vineyard Wind project that set off the ongoing dispute with the fishing industry. Fishermen complained that the proposed spacing of the project’s turbines was too tight and would make it dangerous to navigate through the wind farm. They also criticized the orientation of the rows of turbines saying that it would make it difficult to trawl or set fixed gear within the project.
Fishermen in Rhode Island, home to one of the largest fishing ports in New England, were among the first to air grievances, saying that they would effectively lose access to grounds rich in squid, Jonah crab and lobster.
Their concerns were soon taken up by fisheries managers. In comments submitted to BOEM on the environmental review for Vineyard Wind, Michael Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, questioned whether the full impacts of offshore wind on the fishing industry were being factored into the permitting process. In his March 2019 letter, he pointed in particular to the specter of fishermen being displaced from fishing grounds.
“…sometimes fisheries occur where they do because of the confluence of biooceanographic conditions that make fishing possible (e.g., depth, temperature, and habitat type leading to an aggregation of sufficient density to fish effectively),” he wrote. “In such cases, moving is simply not an option because the fish would not be there.”
That August, BOEM shocked the industry when it ordered a supplemental environmental review for Vineyard Wind, on the basis that a new assessment was needed to look at the cumulative impact on the environment and fishing of all the wind farms being proposed.
A final decision on the project was expected that summer. Instead, Vineyard Wind would have to wait. So too would all the other developers in line behind it.
Vineyard Wind came before Rhode Island coastal regulators in 2018 requesting certification that their project was consistent with state policies. It’s one of many state and local approvals the project needs on top of a federal sign-off.
After months of often rancorous negotiations with fishing representatives, Vineyard Wind offered to create two funds totaling $16.7 million to compensate fishermen for lost access. The state Coastal Resources Management Council awarded certification for the project in February 2019.
The Raimondo administration was deeply involved in the talks, not only through fishing experts with the state Department of Environmental Management but also through members of the governor’s own staff.
There was suspicion among fishermen that the governor – a believer in the broader economic benefits and jobs-creation impacts of offshore wind – was favoring Vineyard Wind in the discussions and rumors that her office was working out an alternative pact with the developer. A spokesman for the governor said at the time that her staff was talking to Vineyard Wind only about a separate economic development package.
At one meeting before the project won approval, Chris Brown, a Point Judith fisherman who was then president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, described his perceived role of the governor in the talks as a “usurpation.”
This week, when asked to comment on Raimondo’s selection as Commerce Secretary, Lanny Dellinger, chairman of the fishing board that advises the Rhode Island coastal council, offered a written statement:
“If Governor Raimondo becomes Commerce Secretary, the Fishermen’s Advisory Board is hopeful that she will be mindful of the impacts from offshore wind projects on the Rhode Island fishing industry. The fishing industry really bears the burden of these projects, including major impacts identified by BOEM such as navigation safety, quotas, gear conflicts, and displacement of fishing effort. NOAA can work cooperatively with the state and fishing industry to protect both the fishers and the resource. We look to the Commerce Secretary to be fair, and to be protective of both.”
Grover Fugate, the executive director of the coastal council during the Vineyard Wind talks, said that Raimondo would have an advantage taking over Commerce in that she’s familiar with fishing issues and the conflicts with offshore wind.
“One of the key responsibilities she has is the fisheries issue,” said Fugate who retired last year and is now a consultant on coastal issues. “Maybe it will be a new day and a new approach and hopefully it is. But she’s going to have to find her way.”
It’s been nearly three years since the dispute erupted between fishermen and Vineyard Wind. The company and other developers have agreed to spacing of one nautical mile between their turbines, but fishermen are still advocating for transit lanes through the wind farms that would be four nautical miles wide.
The draft supplemental environmental review for Vineyard Wind was released last summer and it described the possibility of “major” effects on fisheries from offshore wind. A decision on the company’s application was expected by Dec. 18, but as the deadline neared BOEM pushed off a final ruling until sometime before Jan. 15. On Dec. 1, Vineyard Wind announced that it was temporarily withdrawing its application.
The stated reason was to conduct a technical evaluation of using larger turbines than those originally planned, but Hawkins, of the fishing group working on offshore wind issues, believes that worries about the fisheries issues and a potentially negative decision from Trump’s Interior Department came into play.
Vineyard Wind, in response, referred back to a previous statement, saying the project continues to progress and that the permitting process can “promptly restart.”
When things start moving again for the developers, Hawkins wants to see more coordination with fishermen – something along the lines of what Rhode Island did years ago before the first turbines went up off Block Island.
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a supporter of offshore wind and a champion of the ocean environment who has been vocal about his belief in balancing the interests of fishermen, called for something similar.
“I hope a Secretary Raimondo will have a role in applying the Rhode Island model to the offshore wind permitting process nationwide,” the Rhode Island Democrat said in an email.
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