Fishermen Wary of Offshore Wind Energy Project
by Laurie Schreiber
With a giant energy conglomerate from Norway eyeing Maine’s offshore waters for the installation of wind-energy turbines, fishermen from Maine and the rest of New England have expressed concern about the impacts to fishing grounds and fishing operations from the burgeoning offshore wind industry.
The topic arose during the latest meeting of the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC), when Brian Hooker, a marine biologist with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) Office of Renewable Energy Programs, gave a presentation on offshore wind energy activities and their implications for New England fisheries.
With particular regard to Maine’s fishing interests, there was concern about a proposed project by the Norwegian company, Statoil, to install four 3-megawatt wind turbine generators about 12 miles off Boothbay.
“It’s fairly certain that there will be user conflict,” said Port Clyde fisherman Glenn Libby. “So what kind of mitigation measures are we talking about?”
Terry Stockwell, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Deputy Commissioner for External Affairs and a Maine representative on the NEFMC, said that, with regard to site selection and input from the fishing industry, the proposed Statoil area off Maine “is highly contentious with the industry.” The spot, said Stockwell, is highly productive for groundfish, herring, whales and lobsters, and for recreational fishing.
“The follow-through from the applicant and potential modifications of their initial site will be very telling on how we move forward with this pilot project,” Stockwell said, speaking of the applicant’s willingness to work with affected parties. “It can go from being something very good to being a complete disaster. We’re standing by, waiting to see how things come out.”
NEFMC member Mark Gibson also expressed concern about what he said was an incomplete picture when it comes to potential impacts.“We see these initial compilations of information, but they’re always incomplete.”
Gibson said there are plenty of available data on fishing activities, but siting studies have thus far failed to pull all the data together to provide a comprehensive picture. Instead, he said, siting studies seem to rely on the attendance of fishermen at meetings who “come in and draw dots on a map. But I’m wondering whose job it is to do this complete compilation of the official data on fishing activity—before you go and ask fishermen to fill in the dots. It seems to be that a deficiency is growing relative to the information on where and how and what types of fishing activities are being prosecuted throughout all these areas of potential wind power.”
Site selection for the Statoil project has gotten ahead of the process, said Gibston. “It seems a lot like maybe the horse has run away already, before we have all the information we need.”
New Bedford (Mass.) Seafood Consulting owner Jim Kendall agreed. Kendall said that, when considering the impacts of offshore wind energy, the entire range of existing and proposed projects along the East Coast must be considered.
“It might be only three or four wind towers here. But south of Nantucket, you’re talking hundreds, and between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, there’s another group. And there’s the New Jersey group, and that’s where 29 million pounds of scallops are located. So all of these have a total impact and shouldn’t be viewed individually,” Kendall said.
Hooker said BOEM is still in the information-gathering stage of Statoil’s lease application. By the time the process gets to the public hearing stage that will be part of the BOEM’s environmental impacts statement, he said, there will be far more data on the impacts of construction.
Still, Hooker said, “We’re trying to incorporate front-load as much as we can at the beginning stages, and we’re getting better at trying to present as much data as we can earlier on in the planning and analysis, so that we do know what potential conflicts we have down the line.”
BOEM received Statoil’s unsolicited lease proposal in October 2011, Hooker said. The proposed project, called Hywind Maine, would put four wind turbines atop floating platforms rather than anchored directly to the ocean floor, which would make it the first floating wind farm in the United States and the largest such project in the world.
According to Hooker’s presentation, the purpose of the test project “is to demonstrate the commercial potential of the floating offshore wind turbine technology.”
Hooker said the project is under review by BOEM’s Maine Task Force.
The Maine Task Force was convened by BOEM in 2010, and comprises federal, state, local and tribal governments. Maine is one of 10 states –nine on the East Coast, plus Oregon—that have convened intergovernmental task forces “to facilitate communication between BOEM and state, local, tribal and federal stakeholders concerning commercial renewable energy leasing and development” on the Outer Continental Shelf, according to the BOEM website.
The Maine Task Force’s activities can be found on the BOEM website, at boem.gov/Renewable-Energy-Program/State-Activities/Maine.
Maine’s first task force meeting was held in September 2010. Its second meeting was convened in December 2011 to discuss Statoil’s application.
At that meeting, Hooker said, fishing concerns were raised by task force members and the public; and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) fishing effort data was presented.
The Maine project is just one in a surge of offshore wind-energy initiatives taking place along the East Coast.
This February alone, BOEM issued press releases regarding “wind energy areas” that are moving ahead in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware; regarding Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau’s progress in streamlining offshore wind applications on the Outer Continental Shelf; and regarding BOEM’s newly published “call for information and nominations” to identify locations for commercial wind projects within an 826,241-acre area on the OCS off Massachusetts.
Statoil’s lease application off Maine represents the next stage of the company’s expansion into offshore-wind energy.
At NEFMC’s January meeting, Hooker said that studies are in the works as part of the lease application process. One that was recently commissioned was a study for the “Development of Mitigation Measures to Address Potential Use Conflicts Between the Wind and Commercial Fishing Industries.” It is intended to give BOEM advice for developing “best management practices where we haven’t been completely able to avoid conflict,” said Hooker. “Our primary goal is to avoid conflict at all times, but there are some cases where conflict can’t be avoided.”
A study to evaluate the socio-economic impact to fishing from offshore wind energy development has been approved for funding in FY2012, said Hooker.
“This directly looks at socio-economic impacts….based on some wind energy areas now in existence,” said Hooker. “So stay tuned for that one.”
Both studies are expected to be complete in early 2014, and further outreach, will occur as part of Environmental Impact Statement and scoping process, at which time, public input will be solicited, said Hooker. That process will take six months to a year.
The BOEM-facilitated task force meetings are meant to “help develop relationships so the wind industry has an understanding of what the concerns are,” he said. “We’ve encouraged the applicant to work directly with affected parties, so the applicant could potentially amend their application prior to us going forward with the planning and analysis phase…We do recognize that those concerns were raised.”
But the consensus among speakers was that BOEM must improve its outreach efforts. Fishermen said the potential issues for fishing will become only more dire if the Statoil demo project evolves to become a commercial-scale operation.
Chris Weiner, a senior fishery analyst with the Salem, N.H.-based American Bluefin Tuna Association (ABTA), echoed the general sentiment. He said the ABTA’s concerns is that much of the control of the Statoil project seems to be in the company’s hands rather than that of regulatory agencies. And, he said, ABTA’s concerns regarding the project have not been addressed by Statoil, despite direct contact in recent weeks with the company.
“A lot of our biggest questions weren’t answered—for example, are we [fishing boats] allowed to go through the area,” Weiner said. “It seems like a lot of things are up in the air. To have four windmills doesn’t seem big, but when we see a company like this coming from Norway and spending tens of millions of dollars to establish a test site, our concern is that this could be the first step toward a commercial site. While four windmills doesn’t seem like a lot, that area is extremely important to tuna fishing and I know it’s important to other fisheries.”
Weiner said the ABTA would like to see more outreach on the part of the government. He said neither BOEM nor NEFMC apprised the public that the topic was going to be on the NEFMC agenda. “Guys in Boothbay don’t even know this meeting is happening, and it’s right outside of their port,” Weiner said.
On a specific note, NEFMC member David Goethel said he was concerned about potential problems with a major component of the project—the transmission cable that would run from the turbines to shore. He said the cable could pose a significant hazard for mobile fishing gear.
Hooker said the BOEM would require Statoil to bury the cable, but undersea geological formations could hamper the burial depth.
“The objective is to have no impact, but we haven’t analyzed it yet,” Hooker said. “So to say there’s no impact—I don’t want to go that far.”
“I would suggest that if the cable is not going to be buried, or it’s not going to be buried at depth sufficient to be able to run it over with mobile gear, that it be outlined on the buffer zone, because that will become an area of impact,” said Goethel. “It will become a de facto no-fishing zone. You don’t want to be dragging up a live electric cable. That needs to be in there and clearly spelled out….to avoid what could quickly become an unmitigated disaster.”
According to a timeline on the regulatory process and task force deliberation issued by BOEM in conjunction with Statoil, Statoil will submit a construction and operations plan to BOEM in the fall of 2012, and BOEM will initiate an environmental impact statement process, with public hearings, at the start of 2013.
The timeline has BOEM making a decision on lease issuance late in 2014, and Statoil beginning installation in the summer of 2016.
BOEM has also prepared a “Request for Competitive Interests” for the proposed lease area, said Hooker. BOEM’s RFCI is a standard part of the process in cases of unsolicited lease proposals, Hooker said. Any RFCIs will first be taken up by the Maine Task Force and then published for a 60-day public comment period, which would tentatively be in the spring of 2012, Hooker said.
As to outreach, Hooker said that BOEM will provide ongoing briefings to the nation’s fishery management councils on offshore renewable energy activities in general, would continue discussions with stakeholder workgroups organized by the states, would invite the participation of fishery council staffs and NMFS in the development of environmental studies, and would attend outreach events.
To the latter, Hooker said he will be at the upcoming Maine Fishermen’s Forum. A session called “Is Offshore Wind Coming to Maine?” is scheduled for Saturday, March 3, 1-4:30 p.m.