In a bid to defuse opposition and avoid conflict with Maine’s fishing interests, Gov. Janet Mills proposed a series of actions Monday to advance a floating wind research project planned for far offshore in federal waters, while protecting the near-shore waters valued for lobstering and coastal tourism. 

In a letter to licensed commercial fishermen, Mills announced that she will ask the Legislature to approve a 10-year moratorium on new offshore wind projects in waters managed by the state, which extend three miles from shore.

The ban, however, wouldn’t include the already permitted New England Aqua Ventus demonstration site off Monhegan island. That venture, which would feature a single turbine atop a floating platform pioneered at the University of Maine, is being developed in a $100 million partnership with two global ocean energy companies, Diamond Offshore Wind and RWE Renewables.

No other applications are pending for wind projects in state waters, Mills noted.

But it was clear Monday by the reactions from representatives of the lobster, ground fishing and scallop fisheries that fishermen are skeptical and wary of the state’s efforts. Fishermen already are facing a variety of pressures on how and where they operate, from restrictions aimed at reducing right whale entanglement to rebuilding stocks of haddock and cod. To them, turbines anywhere in the gulf take away somebody’s productive fishing area.

“What we’re talking about is replacing food production with energy production,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Alliance.

Asked if he sees room to compromise in siting the offshore research project, which would operate under a 20-year permit, Martens said it would be difficult.

“I don’t know how the industry can come to the table and say, ‘We’re going to lose fishing grounds for the next generation,’ ” he said.

A statement from a fisheries industry group said its members are committed to clean, renewable energy and protecting the environment, but do not share Mills’ vision of achieving these goals “through rushed offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine.”

“Maine’s fishing community is deeply concerned that wind development will end our fishing heritage which has sustained our coastal communities for centuries and is integral part of Maine’s identity,” the statement from Responsible Offshore Development Association said. “Without dedicated research proving otherwise, we are skeptical that offshore wind can deliver on its promise of affordable clean energy as promised by global energy companies.”

The association is composed of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, the Maine Lobstering Union, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association.

Offshore wind is ramping up to become a major new energy sector along the East Coast, but is wrestling with some of the same concerns being voiced by Maine fishermen.

Multibillion-dollar proposals announced in recent years from Massachusetts to Virginia were slowed by protracted review under the Trump administration, in part over concerns from fishermen about losing miles of fishing grounds and navigating around wind farm platforms and undersea cables.

But developers are looking for a more welcoming reception from President Biden, who has made fighting climate change a priority.

Mills is aggressively promoting the development of renewable energy to blunt the impacts of climate change and grow Maine’s economy. In June 2019, she announced the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative to guide the responsible development of an offshore wind industry in Maine.

As part of the initiative, Mills in November announced the state’s intention to create the nation’s first floating offshore wind research array. The project is expected to cover no more than 16 square miles of ocean and contain no more than a dozen turbines.

And while major East Coast wind farms are designed to be built on towers sunk into shallow coastal waters, Maine’s research sites focus on evolving technology for floating platforms that will be used in wind farms that eventually will be anchored far out at sea.

No exact site has been chosen yet for the first-in-the-nation floating research array, which would be 20 to 40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine. A chart produced by state agencies shows that it would be somewhere in an elongated project area centered roughly 27 miles offshore, between Biddeford and Rockland.

It also suggests where the project would connect to the mainland. To feed into the electric grid in southern Maine, an underwater cable would most likely tie in to high-voltage transmission lines either at the former Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset, or at Wyman Station, the oil-fired power plant at the tip of Cousins Island in Yarmouth.

“Offshore wind is a significant clean energy and economic opportunity for Maine, which we will pursue responsibly, transparently and in consultation with our fishing and maritime industries,” Mills said in a statement. “By focusing on floating offshore technology deep in the Gulf of Maine where the wind is strongest, we will protect Maine’s maritime heritage and coastal economy while being out front in this new competitive industry.”

But while they would be anchored far offshore, the floating nature of the turbine platforms present an additional obstacle for fishermen, Martens said. While fishermen have been able to work around stationary wind towers in Europe, as well as oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Martens fears boats will need to give floating platforms and their anchoring systems a wider berth.

Starting last month, the Governor’s Energy Office and the state Department of Marine Resources initiated discussions with Maine’s fishing industry and other stakeholders to consider a broad area of the gulf that meets basic siting criteria. In addition to a mainland grid connection, the site for the array also would require suitable water depths and sea floor topography to support the experimental floating offshore wind turbines.

In her letter to fishing interests, Mills said that while she’s unable to delay the state’s application for the project in federal waters, as some would prefer, she asked for the industry to “remain at the table” and work with the state in exploring the project’s impacts on future development.

Maine’s lobster industry already had expressed reservations about the plan.

For instance, the lead story in the January issue of Landings, the newsletter of the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance, has a headline that reads: “Governor’s Offshore Wind Plan Frustrates Fishermen.”

In Monday’s announcement, the commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, said the state wants to keep working to give stakeholders a voice in the decision-making process.

“This (10-year) moratorium is an important step that will allow us to continue to alleviate concerns expressed by fishermen and will give us an opportunity to have a more focused conversation around the proposed research array,” he said.

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