As the federal government presses ahead with plans to develop wind farms on a 1,300-square-mile plot of ocean south of the Vineyard, on Monday night the Island had its turn to have a say about it.
Representatives from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, accompanied by members of the Gov. Deval Patrick administration and Cape and Islands Rep. Timothy Madden, came to the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven Monday to solicit public comment as part of a call for information announced on Feb. 6.
Vineyarders came to the meeting with a host of concerns but also some encouragement for the federal agency’s plan to use the ocean as a testing ground for the development of offshore wind power.
Jonathan Mayhew, a commercial fisherman and Chilmark selectman, said he was pleased with the general direction but singled out the northwestern lease blocks in the area as a problem spot.
“It’s about eight miles from Noman’s and 12 miles from Squibnocket,” Mr. Mayhew said. “Because it’s within the 20-fathom edge, it’s a very detrimental area for commercial fishermen . . . I’d very much like to see those areas go further south or be discontinued entirely.”
Earlier in the day at a meeting in New Bedford commercial fishermen voiced their concerns about the effects on winter flounder from offshore wind farms.
Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, noted that the same area also sees frequent sightings of fin whales.
“We know that the fin whale spends the summer in our waters,” she said. “Ideally we would avoid [building in] a core habitat. It’s a large whale second only to the blue whale at 75 to 80 feet long. It’s also very fast. It’s known as the greyhound of the Atlantic.”
Ms. Taylor suggested that construction take place during times of the year that do not overlap with the whales’ migration, an idea that Maureen Bornholdt of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the agency would consider in its environmental review.
Richard Toole, an Oak Bluffs resident and representative to the Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, called it a “wonderful process,” while Chris Fried of the Tisbury energy committee lobbied for an acceleration of the leasing process, expected to take nearly a decade.
“I’m an engineer and I certainly like careful analysis and discovery, yet I’ve got this uncomfortable need to point out that we don’t have much time to spare,” he said. “Our carbon dioxide level has exceeded 350 [parts per million]. So I’m speaking on behalf of aggressively moving forward and maybe not be quite as thorough in order to slow down and possibly halt climate change and all of the nasty things that go with it. I can just imagine our kids and their kids a few decades from now saying, what were our parents thinking way back then?”
Robert Gilkes of Edgartown had another view. “I hate to disagree with Chris, but if this is an intense development we have the threat of driving all of our marine mammals, our fisheries, maybe our herring and mackerel from the area. I think BOEM has really got to get its act together to protect what we’ve got here,” he countered.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Ms. Bornholdt, who noted that her agency had just carried out studies on electromagnetic field impacts to sharks and rays, was undertaking one on Amercian lobster and could piggyback on the ecological experience of oil and gas construction in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel pressed officials to send home some of the offshore profits.
“Are some of these dollars going to come back to the state of Massachusetts so that we, at the local level, can try and lobby our officials to give us some of that money to mitigate, whether it’s fishermen or habitat or the local economy?” he asked.
Ms. Bornholdt said her agency derives its authority from the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which does not require revenue sharing for projects in federal waters more than six miles offshore.
“That is a challenge,” she said.
But Richard Andre, president of the community energy cooperative Vineyard Power, which hopes to develop 40 megawatts of wind power in the area, said the project could be an engine for local economic growth, bringing 15 permanent jobs to the Island and over $1 million in salaries. Mr. Andre urged the federal agency to adopt a leasing process that would take community benefits into account when awarding lease blocks.
The discussion was not entirely orderly. The start of the meeting was disrupted by an agitated member of the audience wearing a bright flashing head lamp.
“Do you know you have a flashing light on?” assistant secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Bill White asked the man, who did not identify himself.
“Do you know there’s going to be like thousands of flashing lights like this on the south side of the Vineyard? It’s totally outrageous,” he said before storming out.
A 45-day public comment period on the area ends on March 22.