Editorial : Oceans Act implications
President Obama will be in Boston tomorrow to appear at a fundraiser for Gov. Deval Patrick. Before the fundraiser, the president will speak at MIT about America's leadership in clean energy developments in Massachusetts. It's true, as Ian Bowles, state Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, will tell you. The combination of energy efficiency initiatives and tough emission control standards for automobiles and power plants, more demanding for years than their federal counterparts, have propelled the state into its leadership position. The state's new management plan for renewable energy development siting, an outgrowth of the landmark state Oceans Act, is another model effort by the state in the renewable energy and environmental protection field. The federal government, Mr. Bowles says, is examining the Oceans Act as it considers similar new, broad management authority over energy development beyond state-owned ocean waters.
Mr. Bowles is under fire from Vineyarders who object to the possibility that the state's ocean management plan, whose creation Mr. Bowles supervised, will write Vineyard regulators, the Martha's Vineyard Commission in particular, out of the picture when nearshore energy projects seek development permits. But, in a wide-ranging discussion of energy issues Tuesday, the imperturbable Mr. Bowles offered an unvarnished and concrete sense of his and the state's view of what lies ahead, in the form of renewable energy project siting south of Cape Cod.
To begin with the areas in state waters near the Vineyard, Nantucket, and in Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay that are identified in the plan as promising for possible development, Mr. Bowles says these were identified during a year-long, extensive review of the science that may be used to define useful locations. Science, not politics drove the conclusions.
Mr. Bowles rejects the argument that his plan ought to respect as ultimate the permitting authority the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC). The state's energy siting board's authority is the current law, he says, and governed such projects before the Oceans Act became law. It has always had the commanding role when energy development permitting is the issue. Of course, the relative authority of the siting board and the MVC may be tested in court, but for now, for Mr. Bowles, the hierarchy of authority is clear.
His position toward the MVC assertion that its authority be recognized is not exactly like-it-or-lump-it. But, almost. Mr. Bowles said he and the state will take "an accommodating view of the feedback" from Vineyarders, but will not accede to demands that the MVC get veto authority over energy proposals in our neighborhood. He called the management plan a "zoning exercise" rather than a siting determination, which will be made after project-specific consideration of the complete range of implications raised by any proposal, including the hostility or embrace of local permitting agencies.
More important, Mr. Bowles cited considerable interest on Cuttyhunk for a wind energy development south of that island. Cuttyhunk, a part of Gosnold, the seventh Dukes County town, is not under the MVC for regulatory purposes. There is also similar strong interest on Nantucket for renewable energy development near that misty island. Most developments, no matter the scale, will consider the value of going where they are welcome.
In an allied joint state-federal renewable energy initiative, Massachusetts and the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) have established a task force to examine the promising and large-scale possibilities of offshore wind power development. That would occur on tracts controlled by MMS and available for lease to commercial developers, over the horizon, well south of both islands.
Wind is hot now, at least in the public debate. It may be that the aesthetic of wind turbine installations is the unspoken driver of the critical examination of the Oceans Act's draft management plan here. But in Massachusetts, the contribution of commercial wind power to the state's energy budget during the next 10 years will be fractionally modest.
Whether wind power is welcome here or nearby, and who gets to slam the door on it or fling it open, may in the medium term depend on a host of hard-to-predict variables, all of which will affect the financial reasonableness of any renewable energy project.
Consider just a few of these: the health or ill-health of the state, national, and global economies; the availability of federal and state subsidies, outright or in the form of loan guarantees; the availability of private investment capital for clean power development; the realized scalability of offshore renewable energy installations; the impact of conservation and energy efficiency initiatives on demand; the success of efforts by fossil fuel plant owners to reduce emissions by improved technology or by conversion from filthy fuel (coal) to cleaner fuel (gas) - a tormenting calculus for developers and regulators, on-Island or off.