Who Can’t Get No Respect? Rodney Dangerfield and Offshore Wind Energy

(ACOEL) | American College of Environmental Lawyers
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“I don’t get no respect” was comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s well-known catchphrase, and also the reason his 1981 album won a Grammy. Like Dangerfield, advocates for the clean energy technology known as offshore wind power (OSW) have confronted a regulatory field of danger from hesitant environmental and utility regulators, legislators, beachfront home owners, and a most difficult set of critics—fishermen. Longtime ACOEL members and blog readers know that I have been the long-time attorney for Maine’s floating offshore wind projects, and recent events in Maine have brought into more focus the nature of arguments against the single biggest potential energy source needed to meet the climate action goals of the State and Governor Janet Mills.

The Maine Legislature’s 2021 session just adjourned a few weeks ago. There were three offshore wind bills that had hearings: 1) a bill prohibiting any department or agency of the State or any political subdivision of the State from permitting, approving or otherwise authorizing an offshore wind energy development project; 2) in response to the rumored interest of a California developer in developing a full-scale project in State waters (three miles from land), a Governor’s bill proposing a 10-year moratorium on wind projects in State waters; and 3) a bill, also supported by the Governor, creating a process for the Maine Public Utilities Commission to issue a power purchase agreement (PPA) for a 10-12 turbine project in federal waters as part of the State’s pursuit of a research lease from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Core concerns of those opposing any energy projects offshore included possible impacts on bird and marine life, visual impacts, electromagnetic fields and fish, and that most of the developers are international (non-U.S. based) companies.

But the most vigorous and vocal opposition here against OSW came from people connected to the lobster industry. While other States hoping to develop fixed-bottom or floating offshore wind projects do not have the size or history of Maine’s lobster industry, those States (Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico) have a variety of fishing businesses and interests who have been, and will be, raising similar concerns and opposition. Maine’s recent experience can thus be instructive for ACOEL members elsewhere.

OSW did not get much respect from fishermen or lobstermen at the Legislature. Instead, opponent arguments centered on these common themes:

  1. The Gulf of Maine is a unique ecosystem that is central to Maine’s identity and the lives of generations of residents. Floating OSW, which is a very new technology compared with fixed-bottom, should be tested elsewhere.
  2. OSW threatens the centuries-old fishing communities and lifestyle along the Maine coast. The cultural fabric and economic engine of coastal Maine must be protected, especially because it already is under threat from low prices, warming waters, and new right whale regulations. Lobster is a key attraction for out-of-state tourists, who may not come to Maine and spend money if there are negative effects from OSW upon the lobster fishery.
  3. Fishermen were here first. Their generations-old industry should be supported and given precedence over untested new technology.
  4. Every square inch of the Gulf of Maine is already being fished, and even a few OSW farms will displace lobstermen and other fishermen, who may then try to fish into waters already used by others.
  5. The cables and mooring lines from floating wind projects, and cables from any other type of OSW project, will interfere with the navigation of fishermen and other boaters on the water.

What was the outcome? By the end of June, the bill completely banning any offshore wind development had died; the 10-year moratorium in state waters had become indefinite in time, but had a few discrete exceptions to allow for development of the pending New England Aqua Ventus I/University of Maine demonstration project in the State-designated research center south of Monhegan Island, as well as cables from projects in federal waters that would have to cross into State waters to get to the mainland transmission systems; and the PPA legislation was approved, enabling the State to move forward with its application to BOEM. There was strong, bipartisan legislative support for offshore wind energy development to move forward, with care, in Maine as we seek to transition to a greater clean and renewable energy economy.

As Governor Mills said in her the July 7, 2021 press release:

“This legislation cements in law our belief that these efforts should occur in Federal waters farther off our coast through a research array that can help us establish the best way for Maine to embrace the vast economic and environmental benefits of offshore wind. I applaud the Legislature’s strong bipartisan support of this bill, which I believe demonstrates that offshore wind and Maine’s fishing industry can not only can coexist but can help us build a stronger economy with more good-paying jobs and a brighter, more sustainable future for Maine people.”

The next 10 years will determine whether coexistence can also mean respect between fishing and energy groups. Let us hope that the Dangerfield trademark will not be the motto for American clean energy interests.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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