PROVIDENCE – When representatives of Rhode Island’s fishing industry started negotiating with Ørsted and Eversource over compensation for impacts from the proposed South Fork Wind Farm, they had just come off a bruising battle with another offshore wind developer and were hoping for something better.
But after more than a year of talks with the two partners on the 130-megawatt project that would be built in Rhode Island Sound and supply power to Long Island, members of the state Fishermen’s Advisory Board say they’ve hit an impasse.
Lanny Dellinger, chairman of the board, which advises the Coastal Resources Management Council on offshore wind development, declined to go into detail about the offer from Ørsted and Eversource, or what he and the other fishermen had asked for, but he said the two are far apart.
“We’re not asking for anything that isn’t deserving of the industry,” said Dellinger, a lobsterman who fishes out of Newport.
He and Rick Bellavance, a charter boat captain who represents the recreational fishing industry on the board, both described the way that negotiations have played out with Ørsted and Eversource as worse than the contentious talks with Vineyard Wind, the first offshore wind developer that came before the board.
Ørsted, too, conceded that the two sides are nowhere close to finding common ground.
“It’s a very, very wide gap,” said Matthew Morrissey, head of U.S. market affairs and strategy for the company.
The South Fork project is relatively small compared to other utility-scale offshore wind proposals, but it is significant. It’s the second major project to enter the federal permitting process presided over by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project is the first.
South Fork is also the first big proposal in the United States put forward by Ørsted, the global offshore wind leader. With its partner Eversource, a regional utility, Ørsted won approval to supply 400 megawatts of capacity to Rhode Island and 304 megawatts to Connecticut from its Revolution Wind project.
These early talks over compensation could have outsized importance going forward because of the precedent-setting nature of any agreements to pay fishermen for lost access to fishing grounds and other impacts. The ramifications may be felt not just by projects off Rhode Island and Massachusetts but potentially in other states involving other fisheries on the Atlantic coast as developers push forward to use ocean winds to generate power.
As much as the relationship with Vineyard Wind was also characterized by ill will and suspicion, the talks did result in an agreement. After much back and forth and many delays, Vineyard Wind offered to create two compensation funds totaling $16.7 million that would cover the cost of fisheries impacts and damage to fishing gear. The fishermen’s board agreed to the package before it was approved by the state coastal council in February 2019.
This time around, the fishermen’s board hasn’t been able to come to an agreement with the developers that would cover the South Fork project and any consideration of one is for now in the hands of staff at the coastal council, which stepped in to suspend negotiations last month.
Laura Dwyer, a spokeswoman for the council, confirmed that as things stand any offer or counteroffer would be contained in a recommendation from staff to the council. She would not provide any more details about how the process could play out or its timing.
The tone of the negotiations over South Fork was set early on in the process, with fishermen expressing frustration at a public meeting in September 2019 with the spacing and layout of the project’s approximately 15 turbines.
But since then, information has been hard to come by because all of the meetings have been moved behind closed doors. That’s unlike the Vineyard Wind process, which in stretches played out in public, with offers and counteroffers available for all to see.
An open meetings ruling by the state Attorney General’s office following the rancorous September 2019 meeting helped spur the change. In the ruling, the office adjudged that because the fishermen’s board is advisory in nature it is not subject to the state Open Meetings Act. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the board also has not held the informational meetings it scheduled during the Vineyard Wind process.
The South Fork proposal came before the fishermen’s board as part of the review process by the state coastal council for what’s known as a “consistency certification” for the wind farm. Even though the project would be located in federal waters, it requires certification from the council that it is consistent with policies governing state activities – in this case the fishing industry.
The concerns about the South Fork project are heightened because of its location in an area called Cox Ledge that’s known to be valuable habitat for a variety of fish and shellfish and that fishermen describe as offering some of the richest grounds around. They say for that reason an apples-to-apples comparison can’t be made with the Vineyard Wind project, contending that the impacts for the 15-turbine South Fork project may be more significant than Vineyard Wind and its up to 84 turbines.
One reason that board members and the developers are so far apart is because of the data each side are using to measure fishing impacts. While Ørsted is relying on information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and analysis by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the fishermen have their own records and an analysis done by their economist that they say are more accurate and show a higher level of fisheries impacts. A similar difference over data sources arose with Vineyard Wind.
More specifically, the fishermen say the developers have completely disregarded the impacts during operation of the wind farm on recreational fishermen who go to Cox Ledge to catch cod, tuna and other fish.
One key difference with the Vineyard Wind talks is that the current negotiations are taking place after offshore wind developers agreed to a uniform layout of wind turbines that spaces them one nautical mile apart. Minimum spacing was agreed to as a concession to the fishing industry, though fishermen maintain that it’s not enough. They have also asked for wider transit lanes to make it safer for their boats to navigate through wind farms.
Ørsted argues that the layout reduces any accessibility issues faced by fishermen. But the fishermen maintain that transit lanes are still key.
“The congestion that’s going to take place in foul weather, it’s an accident waiting to happen,” said fishermen’s board member Michael Marchetti, who fishes for scallops.
Morrissey says Ørsted is willing to work with the fishermen, describing the relationship between the offshore and fishing industries as “immensely important.” But he said there needs to be a more predictable and uniform process to come up with agreements.
“If there’s a measurable impact, a reasonable accommodation will be made,” he said.
But the fishermen have doubts and they point to a recent move by the developers that they say undermines the board’s position.
Under state rules governing the planning process for offshore wind, developers must pay for a lawyer and expert advice for the fishermen’s board. After the coastal council suspended negotiations, Ørsted notified the board it will no longer pay for its counsel or economist, a move that members say will hamstring the board when the council asks for the two sides to respond to any proposed agreement.
Ørsted declined comment on its decision.
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