WIth no utility-scale wind farms up and running in the United States, there is no way to gather data to assess environmental impacts and revenue losses. (Image courtesy of University of Rhode Island Flickr account)
The contested Revolution Wind project secured approval from state coastal regulators Tuesday despite continued protest from the fishing community.
The Rhode Island Coastal Resource Management Council’s 4-1 vote on Tuesday affirms that the 700-megawatt wind farm planned for federal waters off Rhode Island Sound is consistent with state coastal regulations. It also adds conditions aimed to offset potential harms to ocean habitats, wildlife and the fishing industry.
While the process for leasing and reviewing major offshore wind turbines largely rests at the federal level, the CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan gets a say in wind farm projects within 30 miles offshore of the state coastline. The council can also recommend mitigation measures to help minimize losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects.
Chief among the conditions imposed for Revolution Wind: scaling back the number of turbines from a maximum of 100 to no more than 65, plus two offshore substations.
Cutting the number of turbines, as recommended by CRMC staff in its review of the project, means fewer foundations drilled into the seabed, in turn reducing disruption to the sensitive ecosystem and the fishing community that relies upon it.
Developers Eversource Energy and Orsted A/S agreed to this, and other conditions.
Not that it gave much comfort to the fishermen. Scores of commercial and recreational fishermen criticized the project during public comment Tuesday. They painted bleak pictures of how Revolution Wind, and projects like it, will destroy pristine ocean habitats and wipe out the centuries-old fishing economy at the heart of the Ocean State.
We have an industry that's been here for generations and we need to protect that, and not have it become collateral damage.
– Fred Mattera, a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island.
“We have an industry that’s been here for generations and we need to protect that, and not have it become collateral damage,” said Fred Mattera, a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island.
Equally passionate were the throngs of climate activists, whose bright green T-shirts stood out among the 60-person crowd. They highlighted the importance of the project, which will bring 400 megawatts of renewable electricity to Rhode Island, to meet the state’s ambitious and fast-approaching decarbonization mandates.
“If we delay the implementation of offshore wind, we are going to face continued consequences that we cannot mitigate from climate change,” said Barbara Sullivan-Watts, a retired senior marine research scientist for the University of Rhode Island.
The Lorax, then name-calling
Debate played out for more than six hours Tuesday (the second part of a two-part hearing) over which threat – climate change or preservation of the fishing industry – is greater. One project opponent passed out copies of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” as a cautionary tale about destroying the natural environment. Others recited poetry about environmental beauty, or shared personal stories about fishing with family members.
The orderly procession of public comment took a turn a few hours in when Mattera approached the seated council members, criticizing Council member Don Gomez for looking at his phone as people were speaking, and asked him to “step outside,” implying a physical altercation. Gomez responded by calling Mattera a “jackass,” and explained he was reading the staff report on his device.
If we delay the implementation of offshore wind, we are going to face continued consequences that we cannot mitigate from climate change.
– Barbara Sullivan-Watts, retired University of Rhode Island senior marine research scientist
Tension and verbal dispute also underscored months of negotiations between the developers and the Fisherman’s Advisory Board, a panel of fishing industry representatives that advises the CRMC. The two sides ultimately failed to come to an agreement.
In addition to scaling back the number of turbines and avoiding – when possible – sensitive habitats like Cox Ledge, the developers have agreed to pay $12.9 million, to commercial and charter boat fishermen to offset potential revenue losses caused by the noise, electromagnetic field waves, boulder moving and other disturbances that the towers and undersea cables cause to the delicate underwater ecosystem. The developers will also spend $300,000 on a study to better understand how the project affects native species, and tack on up to $5 million more in compensation if the study shows the damage is worse than expected.
However, the FAB’s economic projections project the project will cost the industry $66.5 million over the life of the project.
Will project help or hurt the state?
Much of the dispute stems from lack of data on how the project will impact the ocean environment and the fishermen who depend upon it.
There are no utility-scale wind farms up and running in the United States, which means estimates about environmental impacts and revenue loss projects have to be extrapolated based on fish landings data and studies in Europe where offshore wind is more widespread.
The CRMC staff in its report also concluded it was impossible to determine if the project would benefit or hurt the state marine economic sector.
But rejecting the application, as the fishing industry urged the council, doesn’t hold much weight, since the CRMC’s vote is purely an advisory recommendation. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is slated to release its final environmental review of the project in July, with construction proposed to start in early 2024.
Council member Catherine Robinson Hall justified the approval, with conditions, as a way to offer some protection to Rhode Island’s coastline and fishing community.
“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s better,” she said.
Council member Don Gomez cast the sole vote against certifying the project, while council member Patricia Reynolds abstained.
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