PROVIDENCE, RI – After securing an important go-ahead from federal officials, the Ocean State today took a critical step toward developing commercial wind programs in federal waters off the coast of Rhode Island through the U.S. Department of Interior’s “Smart from the Start” offshore wind energy initiative.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman David Cicilline today gathered at Save The Bay to announce that through an extensive stake holder process, a critical fishing area has been removed from consideration for development.  This will help ensure that future offshore wind turbines are appropriately sited in areas of greatest energy potential and with minimal impact to the environment, fisherman, and boaters.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has identified a “Wind Energy Area” (WEA) to develop wind programs offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts that would maximize wind energy potential while ensuring that Rhode Island’s fishermen continue to have access to fishing areas vital to their work.  The Wind Energy Area comprises approximately 164,750 acres of federal waters within the previously agreed “area of mutual interest” (AMI) identified by Rhode Island and Massachusetts in a Memorandum of Understanding between the two states in 2010.  BOEM determined the Wind Energy Area based on community input that was critical in targeting areas of specific concern and issues that will be analyzed further as BOEM conducts its environmental assessment for the area.

In a letter to Senator Reed, the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote: “based on extensive consultation and analysis, BOEM narrowed the focus of the WEA by excluding commercially important fishing grounds from the area.  In light of significant environmental concerns and fishing interests, BOEM removed from the AMI area the sensitive Cox’s Ledge area.”

Cox's Ledge makes up roughly 20% of the originally proposed “Wind Energy Area.”

“I am excited about this announcement today as we move forward with offshore wind energy,” said Governor Chafee.  “Rhode Island is one of the leading states in the country in advancing offshore wind energy development. I am also pleased that state and federal officials are identifying the valuable fishing habitats within the Area of Mutual Interest being discussed for these offshore wind projects. There are important fishing habitats within those waters, that need to be protected for the fishing and recreational community.  As we move forward with these projects it is important that a strong dialogue continue with federal officials, fishing and recreational community, environmentalist, and the offshore wind industry.”

“This will help protect the livelihoods of Rhode Island's fishermen and move forward with establishing commercial wind energy development in Rhode Island, which can bring critical jobs and investment to the state,” said Reed.

“This important step toward development of offshore, renewable wind energy for our state is also a step towards creating badly needed jobs for Rhode Islanders,” said Whitehouse, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.  “I'm glad the concerns of the Rhode Island fishing industry were taken into account for this decision, and I hope the collaboration with fishermen and all stakeholders continues.  Doing so will protect our environment and existing coastal industries, and will keep our Ocean State at the forefront of the emerging clean energy economy.”

“Today’s announcement brings Rhode Island one step closer to homegrown, offshore wind energy – helping create well-paying jobs and break our addiction to foreign energy sources, while also protecting our fishing industry as we ensure the safe and responsible development of this important energy source,” said Cicilline.

“Smart from the Start” is designed to spur rapid and responsible siting, leasing, and construction of new wind projects along the Atlantic Coast by improving coordination with state, local, and federal partners, identifying and refining priority Wind Energy Areas for potential development and conducting early environmental reviews.

As part of the competitive leasing process, in August Senator Reed brought Secretary Salazar to Rhode Island to see firsthand the work the state is doing as it seeks commercial leases for wind projects.  Rhode Island developed the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), a detailed coastal resource management plan, which took a comprehensive look at Rhode Island’s ocean resources and took into consideration the complexities of fisheries, our state’s cultural heritage, our recreation needs, and the potential for renewable energy development.

To bolster the state's ability to become a hub for clean energy development, Rhode Island's Congressional delegation also secured over $22 million in federal funding for improvements to Quonset Point, including road, pier, and freight improvements that will increase port capacity and position Quonset to support the staging and assembly of offshore wind development.

Before any leases are offered, BOEM will complete an environmental assessment to determine impacts associated with issuing leases in the Wind Energy Area.  In addition, BOEM will conduct comprehensive site-specific National Environmental Policy Act review, including opportunities for public comment, for the construction of any proposed wind power facility.  Other key considerations that will be analyzed in the environmental assessment include the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, vessel traffic, and visual and cultural resources.

BOEM identified four other Wind Energy Areas off the Atlantic Coast in February 2011, including: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.  The bureau expects to identify additional areas in the northeast and off the southern Atlantic states later this year.  Those areas will be subject to similar environmental assessments as the locations identified today.