Mar 10, 2010

Maine faces new 'Closing of the Commons'. State's fishery agency "caught with its pants down."

Wind industry-backed  bill would stimulate massive leasing of Maine's fish-rich nearshore coastal waters to energy companies. 

Augusta. Beleaguered Maine scallopers, groundfishermen and shrimp harvesters face financial ruin as a tiny state public lands agency looks to become a political powerhouse by leasing Maine's commercial fishing grounds  out from under them. Meanwhile, the state's marine resoruce agency is poised to shrug.

On Thursday March 11th , LD 1810 "An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Governor's Ocean Energy Task Force"  will come before the Maine legislature's Utilities and Energy Committee.   

The bill would authorize the Maine Department of Conservation's  Submerged Lands Program to: 

 * Offer 30 year wind energy leases of the state's submerged marine lands to wind energy industry  investors. Lobster grounds, scalloping zones, shrimp and urchin grounds, and cod spawning areas would all be opened  to windmill companies leasing by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which stands to gain millions of dollars in fees leasing thousands of acres of nearshore Maine waters. 

* Ban commercial fishing within the wind leases of any gear that wind industry insurers deem risky to wind farm's underwater cables and  structures.

* Allow wind companies to use eminent domain on shoreline and inland property owners to allow the industry to cut powerline and tower rights of way through private land  to connect the offshore developers to the national grid.

* Allows nearshore windfarms to degrade local scenic values without penalty or need to compensate other users for lost value.

* Forbid coastal towns from assessing property taxes on wind turbines or related equipment and facilities in the municipalities' waters tha are "below the mean low-water line on waters subject to tidal influence.

* Forbid Maine citizens from filing appeals of Maine DEP windmill project decisions to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection.

* Forbid the Maine Board of Environmental Protection from assuming jurisdiction over Maine Department of Protection windmill applications.

While Maine Marine Resources chief George Lapointe has expressed dismay about the plan, he wants fishermen to weather the corporate storm by giving up fishing grounds. At the March 6th wind energy Seminar at the  Maine Fishermen's  Forum,  Commissioner Lapointe  noted  that the ocean wind industry in Europe  bans fishermen operating their boats and gear inside their 'exclusion zones', 

 "If their windfarm is 5 miles  by 5 miles, no fishermen are allowed in there." he said.

" It's a huge issue for their insurance companies," Lapointe said .  "You've got the structures  generating the wind connected by cables and then to shore. The impacts of gear on that is clearly a big issue."  

He suggested the developers interested in Maine waters will require the same. "We know that is a component," he said. "Prepare to share."

"The key is how we share." he told the roomful of grim-faced fishermen at the wind industry seminar, but then admitted "there's no direct compensation" [in the bill].

While admitting it was "an accelerated process"  Lapointe insisted the bill is "still going to give time for people to work on real issues ."

The panelists repeatedly declined, however, to answer a key question that arose among the stunned fishing industry and conservationists there: while the wind industry spoke glowingly of the megawatts of energy for Maine and the world,  how many turbines does the industry plan to install in Maine  coastal waters  to reach the state goal of  300 megawatts by 2020?  How many towers to reach the bill's  5,000 megawatt goal for 2030?

Tellingly, neither Lapointe  nor any of the other wind industry and agency people speaking at the seminar received a single clap of applause following their presentations.  This break from traditional civility at the Forum  reflected the mood of  fishermen who had just been shone maps superimposing enormous windfarm leasing areas over their traditional  shrimp, scallop and groundfishing areas. "DMR was really caught with its pants down," one meeting participant said.

Fishermen and grassroots environmentalists have appealed to the Legislature to either send the bill over to the Marine Resources Committee  and/or hold the bill over to next year or both..

"Let's hope Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree and other coastal legislators  stand up for their constituents, " one coastal activist said. " The Department of Conservation certainly won't.

In the meantime, they said. priorities should include developing model ordinances for coastal towns and attempting to have Maine's commercial fishing fleets delineate windmill siting areas acceptable to their industry. If there are any.    

"Most disturbing to me" one scalloper noted, " is the section on the Renewable Ocean Energy Trust.  Proceeds from offshore leases go into this trust and then are disbursed to the DMR for research and monitoring.  This will be millions of dollars put into an organization that is not trust-worthy, unresponsive to the needs and desires of traditional coastal communities, and a bureaucratic mess largely under the influence of the Federal government and private non-profits."

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