PROVIDENCE – At the request of Gov. Dan McKee, state coastal regulators are putting off a key decision on the South Fork Wind Farm to give the project developers more time to reach a compensation agreement with the fishing industry.
Pressure is growing for Orsted and Eversource to find common ground with fishermen, as McKee’s office has signaled a closer interest in the talks.
The Coastal Resources Management Council was expected to consider a federal consistency certification at its meeting this week for the wind farm of up to 15 turbines that would be built in Rhode Island Sound and supply power to Long Island. Agency staff were preparing to present a recommendation to the council at the April 29 meeting and a vote could have taken place that night.
But last Friday, with the possibility that staff could recommend a denial of the certification, Orsted, the Danish company developing the project with utility Eversource, agreed to stay the proceedings and extend the deadline for a decision from May 12 to June 1. A vote is now set for May 25, according to Orsted.
“We fully support the CRMC’s new timeline, as it allows for more dialogue and opportunity to work collectively to reach a fair mitigation agreement and advance this important offshore wind project,” said Orsted spokeswoman Meaghan Wims.
She said the company had briefed McKee on its projects in the region, including South Fork.
McKee spokeswoman Alana O’Hare said the governor’s office “is not participating in the negotiations but is monitoring the negotiations starting this week.”
“CRMC maintains its regulatory authority in the negotiations,” she said in an email. “The Governor’s office has asked the parties involved in the negotiations to take some additional time to attempt to reach a mutual agreement with respect to issues related to fisheries and offshore wind proposals.”
The stakes are high for the project developers and for Rhode Island, where Orsted and Eversource have promised an initial $40 million of port improvements to serve the offshore wind industry with more investments potentially to follow.
The 132-megawatt South Fork proposal is only the second major offshore wind farm to enter the federal regulatory process after the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project. Both would be developed in a stretch of waters off Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
While the projects would be located in an area presided over by the federal government, they require certification from the CRMC that they are consistent with Rhode Island’s uses of the area, primarily by the fishing industry.
Vineyard Wind secured a certification in 2019 but only after contentious negotiations with the council’s Fishermen’s Advisory Board resulted in an agreement to create two compensation funds totaling $16.7 million to cover the costs of fisheries impacts and damage to fishing gear.
Talks over South Fork, however, broke down in January, and the developers and the fishermen’s board have failed to reach an agreement since. The issues are particularly sensitive because of South Fork’s proposed location on Cox Ledge, which is considered to have some of the most valuable marine habitat off Rhode Island. Fishermen are worried that they’ll lose access to the fishing grounds with the construction of the wind farm and others.
South Fork is the first big wind farm put forward in the United States by Orsted. The Danish company is the leading global developer of offshore wind, but its only project in America so far is the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, which was built by startup Deepwater Wind before it was acquired by Orsted.
With Eversource, Orsted is also planning Revolution Wind, a project that would be located near South Fork and would supply 400 megawatts of capacity to Rhode Island and 304 megawatts to Connecticut.
Because Revolution would also be built on Cox Ledge, any compensation agreement for South Fork would set a precedent for the larger project.
This is not the first delay in proceedings for South Fork. The application was filed with the council on Oct. 22, 2018, triggering what is supposed to be a six-month review. But a decision was pushed back repeatedly because of the dispute with fishermen and also amid uncertainty about federal support for the offshore wind industry under former President Trump.
While the Biden administration has made its backing of the industry clear by recently announcing a plan to accelerate development, a resolution with the fishing industry has been harder to come by.
The Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group that represents fishing interests, has complained that the federal government is ignoring its concerns about the potential loss of fishing grounds to wind farms.
This month, the alliance announced that it was pulling out of a meeting to plan lease sales off New York, saying that fishermen’s efforts to work with the industry have been ignored.
“Individuals from the fishing community care deeply but the deck is so stacked that they are exhausted and even traumatized by this relentless assault on their worth and expertise,” the group wrote.
If the CRMC were to deny certification for South Fork, Orsted and Eversource could appeal the decision to the Department of Commerce, which is headed by former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, a champion of offshore wind.
The ties between Raimondo and the industry were strengthened with Orsted’s announcement on Tuesday that it had hired David Ortiz, her onetime chief of staff when she was governor, as its head of New England market affairs.
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