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As Rumors Swirl Of Large-Scale Turbine Farm, Fishermen Worry About Rapid Pace Of Wind Development

Michael Dwyer
Associated Press file
In this Aug. 15, 2016, file photo, wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand in the sea off Block Island, R.I.

Maine fishermen say that Gov. Janet Mills’ plan for a state-led offshore wind project is being rushed. And now news that a developer is considering a new commercial-scale wind project off the coast is adding to their fears.

In late November, the Mills administration announced that the state would seek a federal lease for up to 12 floating wind turbines off southern Maine that could produce enough energy for more than 70,000 homes.

“We think there’s a real opportunity for Maine to be a leader in the country on floating offshore wind,” says Dan Burgess, who leads the governor’s energy office.

Burgess says the “research array” project, as state officials call it, would be led by the state and the University of Maine, and developed by affiliates of international industry heavyweights Mitsubishi Electric and RWE Renewables.

Project backers see it as a vital step in the effort to seed a fast-growth industry here while also helping to meet state goals for reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

“We’re taking this approach so Maine can be in the drivers seat when it comes to potential development in the Gulf of Maine,” Burgess says.

But if Gov. Mills wants to be in the driver’s seat, fishermen say she should take her foot off the gas, and step on the brakes.

“I just don’t understand why the rush. All of a sudden why the rush. I don’t get it. Because this is a big deal and this isn’t something that you rush through,” says Gerry Cushman, a lobsterman out of Port Clyde who attended the first of four “initial stakeholder” webinars the state held in December.

That was just three weeks after announcing that this winter it would select a specific site 20-40 miles off the coast, and by early spring would submit an application for a 20-year lease to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Cushman argued that even in the best of times it’s difficult to convene fishermen, who tend to be on the water dawn-to-dusk and longer. He says that’s compounded now by the pandemic and overreliance on “virtual” public meetings.

“I just don’t think you can do an adequate job by this spring in doing an outreach, in getting the information that you really need, and I think it’s really point blank unfair. I think it’s unfair to the fishing industry that you’re pushing it this fast when you got this for 20 years, and we’ve been fishing there for hundreds of years,” he says.

He and other fishermen say the untested technology poses numerous potential threats: Hazards to navigation and gear from electric cables on the seafloor and mooring lines in the water column; Behavior changes among lobster or fish exposed to electric fields; The possibility that the 16-square-mile site might even be put off limits to fishing entirely.

And Stephen Russell, who fishes in potential turbine territory, says his concerns go beyond the water.

“The aviary wildlife. The gannets are going to take it hard. Seagulls, geese, we can see a cloud of monarch butterflies go by. Does this not play into the decision to put something in such a location anywhere out there? It’s a very highly used flyway,” he says.

Project officials say those kinds of questions are precisely the type that the research array could explore.

Anxieties about “Big Wind” moving in are being heightened by recent rumors that a commercial developer is considering an even larger-scale wind project in state waters. And energy office director Burgess confirmed he’s been contacted by the company, which is called Trident Winds.

“There’s no formal project submitted to the state. I think it’s fair to say we have strong concerns about commercial-scale development in state waters and our priority is really this research array and moving this forward,” he says.

Trident Winds, which has formally proposed an offshore wind project in California’s Morro Bay, did not respond to requests for comment. And Burgess declined further comment about the contact.

But he says interest from a commercial developer, however substantial or transitory, is a case in point. To protect both fishermen and economic opportunity, he says, Maine needs to establish and maintain a leadership position in the technology’s emergence.

“And we think it can be done in partnership with the fishing industry in Maine as well as other interested parties to really form a science-based understanding of how best to design and implement offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine,” Burgess says.

Meanwhile, the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump appears to have improved the fishing community’s position in the wind project permitting process. Two weeks ago, an attorney in the Department of the Interior wrote an opinion that offshore projects in federal waters must not “unreasonably interfere” with fishing operations, and that fishermen’s perspectives are what determine whether interference is unreasonable.

Annie Hawkins, executive director of a fishing-industry trade group called the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, says that could considerably strengthen fishermen’s hand.

“It’s certainly much stronger than it was. And I think a pure reading of the memo would say that fishermen have priority,” she says, “and that would put fishing operations in a really protected spot.”

Hawkins says it’s unknown whether the Biden administration will enforce that opinion. Burgess says the administration is studying the opinion’s potential ramifications. He adds that the next step in determining a lease site for a research array off Maine, a scoping session, will take place this month, although it has yet to be scheduled.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.