Forum next week to discuss offshore wind energy development

State energy and environmental affairs officials will hold a public information session next week in Oak Bluffs, to discuss a multi-year federal leasing process for offshore wind-energy development in approximately 3,000 square miles of federal waters off the Massachusetts coast.

Bill White, EEA assistant secretary for Federal Affairs, and John Weber, EEA Coastal Zone Management ocean planning manager, will host the public meeting at the Oak Bluffs library on February 17.

They invited officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the U.S. Coast Guard to join them.

The first portion of the two-part session, which runs from 3-4:30 pm, will focus on commercial fishing issues with the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. The second session runs from 5-7 pm.

BOEMRE, in partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, issued a Request for Interest (RFI) for commercial leasing for wind power on the outer continental shelf (OCS) offshore of Massachusetts on December 29, 2010.

EEA officials scheduled two public information sessions about the RFI next week, including the one on Martha’s Vineyard and one in New Bedford the previous day.

The meetings are designed to provide public officials, the fishing industry, and local residents of Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford with details about the RFI process to date and to outline the next steps, according to an EEA press release. The sessions will include presentations by the EEA, BOEMRE, and U.S. Coast Guard representatives, followed by a question and answer session.

“It is my understanding that the purpose of next week’s meeting is to engage the Martha’s Vineyard community, given that it has been one of the communities most attentive to these issues,” Martha’s Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London said in a phone conversation Tuesday. “I think it’s in the interest of the Vineyard community to work with the state officials to influence the federal office to make sure that our concerns are accounted for.”

The where and why of the RFI

The RFI is the first step under the “Smart from the Start” OCS renewable energy initiative endorsed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, according to a press release. The purpose of the RFI is to gauge interest in future wind-energy development offshore.

“BOEMRE has worked closely with Massachusetts officials and tribal representatives to facilitate the commercial leasing process for renewable energy development off the southern coast of Massachusetts,” director Michael R. Bromwich said in the bureau’s December 28 press release. “The administration has expressed its commitment to putting our nation on the path to a renewable energy future, and BOEMRE will continue working to fashion an expedited but responsible process for leasing and permitting on the OCS.”

The RFI covers an area approximately 12 nautical miles (nm) south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and extends approximately 31 nm seaward, south to the 60 meter depth contour, then east approximately 65 nm, then north approximately 31 nm.

The area was selected through consultation with the Massachusetts Renewable Energy task force, an interagency group led by BOEMRE.

Task force members included federal and state agencies, tribal governments, and local entities that have a role in permitting, reviewing, or regulating activities that are involved in energy development on the OCS.

BOEMRE has established task forces in 9 of the 13 states along the Atlantic coast: Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Discussions are underway about setting up task forces in additional states, including Florida, Oregon, and South Carolina.

For more than a year, BOEMRE has collected crucial baseline information through the task forces about offshore areas that may be suitable for future wind projects. The bureau already has identified wind-energy areas offshore of four Mid-Atlantic States, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia.

RFIs have been issued for Delaware, Maryland, and Massachusetts offshore areas, and RFIs or similar regulatory notices will be issued soon for New Jersey and Virginia.

BOEMRE’s objective is to accelerate responsible renewable wind-energy development on the Atlantic OCS by using appropriate designated areas, coordinated environmental studies, large-scale planning and expedited approval processes, according to an overview on the Department of Interior’s website.

Responses to the RFI and also public comments are due by February 28. If responses indicate there is no competitive interest in the area from developers, BOEMRE may proceed with a non-competitive leasing process. Whatever leasing process is used, the agency says it will seek public participation as well as a thorough environmental review.

Mr. London said the MVC would submit comments in collaboration with members of the Dukes County Wind Energy Plan work group.

MVC commissioner Doug Sederholm, the work group’s chairman, said he definitely plans to attend the public information session, although the work group has no formal role in it.

“I did hear from these people when they proposed to schedule this, and I certainly encouraged them to come down, because I think the more conversations we have with the state government about this, the better they’ll understand the Island’s concerns,” Mr. Sederholm said. “And maybe they’ll understand our way of life and why these issues are important to us.”

Different plan, different place

The area that the Massachusetts RFI covers is no way associated with the Rhode Island-Massachusetts area of mutual interest (AMI) designated by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri last summer.

The two governors signed a memorandum of agreement in July in which they agreed both states would collaborate in the process to permit and develop offshore wind energy projects. They designated an AMI, also in federal waters, that covers 400-square miles in Rhode Island Sound beginning 12 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard and extending 20 miles westward toward Block Island.

The governors also agreed the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) would serve as the planning and assessment guide to help identify the best locations for offshore wind-energy project sites in the AMI, through a task force process.

The Massachusetts task force included local representatives from the six Island towns, Dukes County government, the MVC, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

The MVC and Dukes County Wind Energy Plan work group also submitted written comments about last November’s draft SAMP that outlined Islanders’ concerns about offshore wind energy projects on fishing, birds, marine mammals, tribal historic and cultural preservation, navigation, and boating.