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New England Offshore Wind Developer Announces Protections for Whales

We need look no further than the ocean to understand the urgent need to drastically reduce the carbon pollution caused by our addiction to fossil fuels. It is fueling ocean acidification, which is threatening the ability of some plankton, shellfish and coral to form skeletons — all of which form the base of the underwater food chain or provide important habitat for many species. Meanwhile, it is also contributing to climate change, which is raising ocean temperatures — bleaching coral reefs, displacing and even killing off sea life. It’s a one-two punch that is hitting the world’s oceans hard.

But our oceans can also be part of the solution by housing responsibly developed offshore wind power that can spin a clean alternative energy source. And, with the proper safeguards and oversight, the blowing winds of Rhode Island Sound offer significant untapped potential as a source of this sustainable, pollution-free electricity.

NRDC is happy to announce a major agreement between offshore wind developer Deepwater Wind, a leading U.S. offshore wind developer based in Providence, RI, as well as other major environmental organizations, that will help us capture this potential, while at the same time protecting neighboring endangered North Atlantic right whales.  The agreement covers the Rhode Island-Massachusetts Wind Energy Area, where Deepwater holds a lease from the federal government and plans to build a 1,000-MW offshore wind project known as Deepwater ONE. (Deepwater Wind is also planning30-MW offshore wind demonstration project off Block Island, Rhode Island, with construction slated to begin soon).

An agreement among offshore wind power developer Deepwater Wind, NRDC and other environmental groups will protect endangered right whales as Deepwater Wind develops an offshore wind farm (in area pictured above) in the federally designated Rhode Island-Massachusetts Wind Energy Area. 

The groups and the developer have outlined a number of precautionary measures that Deepwater Wind will take at the Deepwater ONE lease area — above and beyond the current government requirements — to protect the whales from harmful underwater noise and other impacts that could be caused by the early stages of site development for the wind farm and related activities when they’re migrating through the area, which is located off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The agreement builds on a similar agreement reached in December 2012 for the Mid-Atlantic region by NRDC, other environmental groups and three offshore wind developers (including Deepwater). 

Historically hunted to near-extinction by whalers, only some 500 individual North Atlantic right whales (so-named because whalers deemed them the “right whale” to hunt) remain in existence. Today, many of them migrate up and down the Atlantic coast at specific times of the year, spending the summer months feeding in and around the Gulf of Maine, before heading down to their winter calving grounds off Florida and Georgia, and possibly the Carolinas. In some years, the waters of Rhode Island Sound seem to attract large numbers. Indeed, larger gatherings of right whales have been spotted here than anywhere else. And while feeding, they often concentrate on groups of small crustaceans called copepods just below the surface, where unfortunately they can’t easily be spotted by approaching ships. Ship collisions — along with entanglements in fishing nets and habitat degradation from noise and other forms of pollution — have kept their numbers low. 

This agreement will help guard against potential localized risks for this specific area during the initial phases of phases of wind power development, while at the same time allowing the company to proceed toward a project that will spin clean energy and help to combat the threats of ocean acidification and climate change to our seas and the entire plant.

Specifically, the agreement reached today includes practical, science-based measures, including seasonal restrictions (primarily during winter and spring) on certain noise-generating activities that could disrupt whales. These measures are tailored to this specific lease area.  The measures include but are not limited to:

  • Restrictions on noisy sub-bottom profiling (used to survey areas for possible turbine installation) and pile driving for meteorological towers during likely times of whale presence in the area
  • 10-knot speed limit restriction for vessels moving through the area during certain periods when whales are likely to be in the area, to reduce likelihood of strikes
  • Use of best commercially available noise attenuation and source level reduction technologies to reduce noise during tower construction during certain periods
  • Real time visual human monitoring by dedicated, qualified National Marine Fisheries Services-approved observers during pile driving and sub-bottom profiling

These practical and do-able precautions offer enhanced protection for the whales at this site while allowing Deepwater Wind to proceed with this important project. Indeed, they offer more certainty to Deepwater that the project will proceed smoothly and on time.  After all, any impact on right whales, in addition to being negative for the species, could also cause a major setback and prolonged delays for the project.

Significantly, Deepwater ONE could provide clean renewable power not just to one state, but to several.  The project is sited close to both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and could deliver clean power to both those states. And it is also just 30 miles east of Long Island, which means it could provide power to New York.  Indeed, Deepwater ONE is seeking a contract with the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) to provide Long Island with a portion of its clean energy output. If it goes through, Deepwater ONE could produce enough energy to power 120,000 homes in Long Island’s East End. Together with increasing solar energy there, the addition of wind from Deepwater ONE would help diversify Long Island’s power sources, reduce the pollution that is turbocharging our weather. A decision by LIPA is expected at the end of this year.

American offshore wind is ramping up along our coasts. Today’s agreement with Deepwater Wind provides additional proof positive that, with smart planning from the start, we can develop it responsibly — in harmony with its underwater neighbors — and start spinning clean, pollution-free energy to power us into the future.

This article was originally published on NRDC and was republished with permission.

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