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Environment and Outdoors

Amended Wind Energy Bill Includes Permanent Ban On Wind Projects Within State Waters

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Robert F. Bukaty
/
Associated Press

After seven months of contention over Governor Janet Mills' efforts to ramp up wind-energy development off Maine's coast, some compromises are emerging in Augusta — including a permanent ban on wind projects within state waters.

Mills angered Maine's lobster industry last year, when she proposed a 16-square mile "research array" of up to 12 turbines to be floated in federal waters 20 miles or more off the coast -- in a partnership with the University of Maine and international wind developers.

This year she proposed a 10-year moratorium on wind projects closer to shore, in state waters. Roughly speaking, that area extends about three miles off the coast - and it's where the majority of Maine's lobster fleet operates. Some fishermen supported the moratorium, but most said it did not go far enough.

"I've been working across the aisle to try to make a bill that gives the fishing industry a seat at the table," says Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican and lobsterman from Winter Harbor.

He's been a standard-bearer in the industry's fight against ocean wind. This month Faulkingham won a key committee's unanimous support for turning the governor's time-limited moratorium on near-shore wind projects into a permanent ban.

Faulkingham initially declined further comment, pending some final wordsmithing of the measure.

In a later statement, Faulkingham emphasized that while he is supporting the committee’s compromise measures in order to improve the lobster industry’s position, he still opposes wind-energy projects anywhere off Maine’s coast, including near Monhegan Island.

Rep. Nicole Grohoski, an Ellsworth Democrat who sits on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, says the compromise includes several measures designed to protect the state's fishing interests, while encouraging clean energy development.

"I hope that this sends a signal that we understand their concerns, and that they are real, and we want to make sure they are addressed through this process," Grohoski says.

In addition to the ban on wind development in state waters, the amended bill would establish an advisory board to set scientific priorities at the "research array" wind farm. That panel would include at least three representatives of lobster and fishing industries.

And Grohoski says that while the state can't dictate rules for federal waters, the lawmakers still want to use their authority to control whether the research project or any others could link up to the mainland.

"The amended bill does not allow any cables or transmission lines that are associated with offshore wind to pass through our territorial waters, until certain planning and research milestones have been met," Grohoski says. "So I really worked hard on this amendment because it's important to me that the state carefully consider both the existing and possible future uses of the Gulf before we move forward with any further development."

Before a power line across state waters or related onshore infrastructure could be constructed, she says, the state first would have to complete a strategic plan to minimize conflicts with maritime industries, particularly fishing, as well as potential ecosystem effects.

A comprehensive review of whether state laws are strong enough to protect coastal resources and users would be required as well. And a fund to pay for preliminary research questions identified by the advisory board must be established, with an initial $1 million allotment.

"You know, if it is going to move forward, these are improvements. But on it's face we're disappointed to see this rolling out of the gate with so many unanswered questions looming for the fishing industry," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

She says the proposal could ensure that fishermen's views are more closely integrated with state planning for the 12-turbine project and beyond.

And she says that should help fishermen make their case to federal regulators when they consider proposals for much larger-scale commercial wind farms. But McCarron also says fishermen and their allies are losing faith that their interests ultimately will be protected - marking a shift in their historic sense of political clout.

"We're finding ourselves now in a place where we're feeling very marginalized. And it strikes me that the desire to develop offshore wind has clouded people's ability to hear and understand the concerns that the fishing industry is bringing to the table," McCarron says.

The compromise measure does include a carve-out from the ban on near-shore projects to allow an experimental, single-turbine platform near Monhegan Island to move ahead, which Winter Harbor Rep. Faulkingham initially opposed.

He is also expected to support a related a measure that would allow state regulators to contract for energy with the developers of the 12-turbine research array, New England Aqua-Ventus, at above-market prices. That contract would be paid for through consumers' electricity bills.

In a statement, the administration of Governor Mills said it was reviewing the committee work to make sure it is consistent with her "careful and measured approach" to offshore wind energy development.

Read a version of the compromise measure here:

Updated: June 11, 2021 at 3:59 PM EDT
This piece has been updated with comments provided by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham after publication.