Jon Chesto: Mass. Market: Charting responsible course for use of ocean power
The ocean is once again playing an increasingly critical role in our state’s economy thanks to the emergence of offshore energy projects in the past decade.
Giant windmills, tidal-powered electricity turbines and liquefied natural gas terminals have all been proposed for the waters off the coast. They have had varying degrees of success so far, and more energy projects targeting the seas inevitably will be proposed in the coming years.
There’s one big problem with this water grab. While every acre of land in the state has been plotted on a zoning map that spells out specific allowable uses, no such chart exists for state waters that extend to three miles off the shore.
But that map is on its way – and you can have a say in how it’s drawn. The Legislature approved what is known as the Oceans Act in May, setting in motion a year-and-a-half process to come up with the equivalent of a zoning map for the state’s ocean waters.
One of the main objectives for the plan – which is billed as the first of its kind in the country – is a thoughtful approach to balance the protection of natural resources and existing marine commercial activities with the development of badly-needed new sources of energy.
Not surprisingly, the ocean management plan can be traced back to the state’s most controversial offshore project, Cape Wind. Concerns about the proposed 130-turbine wind farm for Nantucket Sound prompted Sen. Robert O’Leary of Barnstable seven years ago to set about trying to end the state’s patchwork approach to regulating its ocean waters. His efforts culminated in the bill that landed on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk in the spring.
The Patrick administration began holding a series of 18 meetings last month to solicit input from the public. Attendance has been modest so far: The first meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston drew nearly 50 people, and only a handful of folks spoke at each of the three meetings on the South Shore during the past week.
That’s O.K. with Deerin Babb-Brott, the state’s assistant secretary for ocean and coastal zone management. Babb-Brott says these meetings are just the start of a dialogue with the public about how to regulate the state’s oceans to protect and harness their natural resources.
Babb-Brott says the Patrick administration will host more informal sessions in January and February once specific ways to balance overlapping uses have been spelled out. That input will then be used to draw up a rough draft for an ocean management plan by the end of June. Then the public will get opportunities to comment on the draft before the secretary of energy and environmental affairs signs off on the plan by the end of 2009.
The plan won’t end up gathering dust on a shelf or tucked away on a hard drive because the new law requires that permitting decisions for any uses of state waters take the plan into account.
Babb-Brott says three big projects are far enough along that they will be grandfathered under old rules. They include Cape Wind, along with an LNG terminal that Excelerate opened this year and another one that Suez is building.
All three projects involve federal waters beyond the three-mile border, although pipelines and power lines connected to those and similar projects would need to traverse state waters. That means similar projects could be regulated by the plan to the extent they’ll need permission to connect to the shore.
O’Leary says he believes federal regulators will take into account the state’s offshore plan when reviewing projects in nearby federal waters. The plan, he says, would give the state a stronger legal basis for arguing against an incompatible project in those waters.
The crowds probably will begin to grow once the panel charged with developing the plan starts to issue specific suggestions for sections of the ocean. Tell the public that wind turbines should be allowed in unspecified offshore areas, and you may get a few curious onlookers. Explain that windmills could be allowed in, say, Duxbury Bay, and it’s a safe bet that half of Duxbury shows up.
This ocean management map will be revisited and reworked every five years, partially to keep up to date with advances in energy technology. But that doesn’t mean you should miss an opportunity to express what you would like to see happen in the state’s coastal waters. After all, it’s your ocean, too.
The sea historically has played an instrumental part in building our state’s economy almost from its inception, with the early success of the shipping, fishing and whaling industries. As we seek new ways to harness the ocean’s power, this is the right time to chart a responsible course for its future.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at email@example.com.