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More than 60 commercial fishermen and their supporters testified Tuesday in favor of a bill that would block any attempt to develop offshore wind projects anywhere along the Maine coast.
The bill would prohibit any state agency from permitting or approving any offshore wind energy project regardless of its location. It was introduced by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, a commercial fisherman, and co-sponsored by eight other Republican lawmakers.
The testimony on L.D. 101 from lobstermen, their families and town officials from fishing communities drew a clear line in the sand: Any offshore wind development, they told told lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, would threaten the very survival of their iconic industry and way of life.
In his testimony, Faulkingham said offshore wind was the worst kind of green energy, and went on to list examples that, in some instances, conflated fact and opinion. He said offshore wind was three-to-five times more expensive than market prices, which may have been a reference to a single state-approved contract for the power from a demonstration project off Monhegan. He said offshore wind farms would cover 850 square miles, four times larger than Casco Bay, an apparent reference to a megawatt target set by an ocean energy task force in 2009.
He said offshore wind would enrich foreign corporations with taxpayer money, without noting that the private partnership behind the Monhegan project is investing $100 million on top of $47 million in federal grants. And he called nuclear power and Canadian hydro better options, ignoring the steep opposition and multibillion cost overruns associated with nuclear power and the ongoing fight over building a transmission line through western Maine from Quebec.
“It is time to put a permanent halt to offshore wind development,” Faulkingham said, calling it “a science project.”
Asked by a fellow lawmaker if his opposition was a case of not-in-my-backyard, Faulkingham said no.
The massive scale of the turbine platforms, he said, dwarfs land-based solar projects that can be taken down when their useful life is over. With offshore wind, he said, developers will “leave these pieces of garbage in the ocean.”
Jeffrey Alley, a fifth-generation fishermen from Jonesport who said he grew up on a lobster boat, said the inevitable disruption or prohibition of fishing activity near wind projects would be devastating.
“I want to protect my family’s fishing heritage and ensure the future of our fishery for generations to come,” he said in a written statement.
This sort of testimony overshadowed the comparatively few comments relating to a bill introduced by Gov. Janet Mills and sponsored by Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York.
That proposed law, L.D. 1619, would establish a 10-year ban on wind energy development in state waters, which extend 3 miles from the mainland. The bill was meant to appease the state’s lobster industry, which harvests an estimated three-quarters of its catch in state waters.
But Mills’ proposal, first launched last winter, sank fast and deep with lobstermen. Except for a demonstration project for a single floating turbine expected to be built next year near Monhegan Island, Maine’s near-shore waters aren’t a prime target for wind development, although one developer was reportedly exploring a venture last winter. The offshore wind industry here is expected to take shape in deeper, federally controlled waters, where the Mills administration wants to locate a relatively small wind farm dedicated to research.
Mills’ near-shore pause won support from clean-energy interests as a balanced approach to offshore wind. But fishermen oppose that plan, as well. They say it will threaten an estimated 1,000 lobstermen who make their living in federal waters. The bill doesn’t address those concerns.
But despite Tuesday’s emotional support for an all-out ban, L.D. 101 faces a steep challenge in its current form. The Legislature is controlled by Democrats. A sweeping offshore wind ban would scuttle one of Mills’ signature policy initiatives – fighting climate change through the carbon-cutting goals set out in the state’s Climate Action Plan.
A blanket prohibition also would be ineffective, said Chris Wissemann, chief executive of the $147 million joint venture project off Monhegan, New England Aqua Ventus, because the vast majority of wind leases are in federal waters. Instead, he said, the ban would send a message that Maine is “closed for business” for offshore energy investment.
“But what L.D. 101 would stop is economic development,” Wissemann said, “hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs, and a burgeoning new industry from developing in Maine. Maine’s loss would be a gain for Massachusetts and New Hampshire.”
More broadly, said Richard Silkman, a Portland energy expert who recently wrote a book about how to electrify Maine’s heating and transportation with renewable energy, there would be no way to power the state in the winter without offshore wind.
“If this committee or the Legislature more generally acts to prohibit offshore wind energy development as proposed in this bill,” Silkman said in his testimony, “then it should be honest with Maine people and simultaneously strike all emission targets and related state policy. It is simply not financially possible to meet Maine’s aggressive climate goals without the development of offshore wind.”
Opposition to Faulkingham’s bill attracted a predictable who’s who of environmental and clean-energy advocacy groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environment Maine, Acadia Center and Conservation Law Foundation. Also against it were the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, Maine’s Public Advocate and the University of Maine, which developed the floating platform technology for the Monhegan project.
But on another level, Tuesday’s testimony also served to highlight an evolving proxy war between political parties leading up to next year’s race for governor.
Late last week, the Republican Governors Association issued a news release headlined: “Mills & Biden team up to destroy lobster industry.”
The release noted President Biden’s announced goal of speeding up offshore wind development in federal waters and combined it with media coverage in Maine of Mills’ plan to site a research wind farm 20 to 40 miles offshore.
“Biden’s & Mills’ plans to implement their extreme environmental agenda of offshore wind will be a death sentence for thousands of family-sustaining fishing jobs in Maine,” the release stated.
It also noted that Mills’ policy stood in contrast to that of former Gov. Paul LePage, “who tried to stifle offshore wind development and who could mount a campaign against her next year.”
LePage is alternately admired and derided for his role in prompting a global energy company to abandon its plans in 2013 to build a $120 million demonstration floating wind farm at a state-approved test area off Boothbay Harbor. The Norwegian company, formally named Statoil, instead built the project in Scotland, where it has set records for offshore wind operating capacity.
At an anti-wind rally in Augusta last week, fishermen carried signs in support of L.D. 101, as well as logos showing a lobster holding a wind turbine in its claw under the heading, “Crush Mills.” They listened to speakers that included a representative for a political nonprofit aligned with LePage.
This week, the group posted an action alert on its Facebook page to draw support for Faulkingham’s bill.
“The delicate environment and significant fishing grounds of the Gulf of Maine should not be the laboratory where global energy corporations like Mitsubishi experiment with offshore wind,” the post said in part.
Both bills will see further action by the committee in a work session that is yet to be scheduled.
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