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Feds OK wave energy at Newport February 3, 2009

The announcement came as a surprise to everyone.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Thursday order issuing a preliminary permit for a 200- to 400-buoy wave energy project off of Newport shocked Ocean Power Technologies leaders as well as the public.

“It’s a project, a site that is not on our priority list right now,” OPT spokesman Len Bergstein said. “It was a little bit of a surprise to us in terms of timing.”

What’s different about this project is that FERC’s approval stirs up a hornet’s nest at the time OPT is trying to work with residents on the South Coast for community approval of two sites: a 10-buoy project off of Gardiner and a 200-buoy project off of the North Spit.

It also calls into question FERC’s intentions of adhering to a memorandum of understanding previously negotiated with Oregon to give the state greater siting power over wave energy projects in the territorial sea.

The approval also seems to be designed for FERC to flex authority over territory traditionally overseen by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service. Both agencies have claimed the area outside of Oregon’s territorial sea, beyond three nautical miles.

Mixed Messages

As the FERC notice of approval hit residents’ e-mail inboxes late Thursday, outrage began to build.

“My concern is this sends the wrong message,” said Lincoln County District Attorney Rob Bovett. “This is high-value crab grounds, about as valuable as you get.”

OPT applied for the permit in November 2006, but let the application slide. The jurisdictional battle meant the application was going nowhere fast. OPT decided to concentrate its work on the Gardiner and Coos Bay sites, both of which are inside the territorial sea.

Bergstein said as soon as he found out about the approval, he immediately called Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson and other Lincoln County folks, particularly those involved with the Fishermen Involved in Natural Energy group.

“Clearly, we have not been prompting FERC,” Bergstein said.

Bovett, who was involved in the commenting on the original OPT application, said Fishermen Involved has been working with wave energy companies to determine the best sites for development that would have the least impact on the fishing industry and local communities. This, though, was different.

“FINE wasn’t involved in the selection of this box,” Bovett said.

State vs. FERC?

Bovett’s first question was: Does the memorandum of understanding not mean anything?

In March 2008, FERC and Oregon signed a memorandum designed to “coordinate the procedures and schedules for review of wave energy projects.”

Bovett just chuckled.

According to the deal, he said, FERC wasn’t going to issue permits willy nilly.

Some of the discrepancy over the decision to issue a preliminary permit — which allows OPT to only study the area for feasibility — may be because Oregon hasn’t finished updating its territorial sea plan. The Ocean Policy Advisory Council and the state have been working on it, but the marine reserves issue has dominated the council’s time over the past year.

“This will obviously get everybody’s attention,” Southern Oregon Ocean Resource Coalition Chairman Nick Furman said of FERC’s decision.

That’s putting it lightly.

Whereas the Reedsport and Coos Bay sites are considered by some to be ground zero as far as local communities negotiating with wave energy developers, the Newport site could be ground zero for state vs. federal and agency vs. agency jurisdiction and siting battles.

However, Bovett said, OPT holds the key right now.

The New Jersey-based wave energy developer should withdraw from  the site, he said. Otherwise, years of litigation seem likely — and courts ultimately would have the final say over which agency should be in charge of alternative energy.

“OPT can fix this,” Bovett said. “It’s exactly what they should do.”

By Susan Chambers, The World (Coos Bay, OR)http://www.theworldlink.com/articles/2009/02/03/news/doc49888bc32a417894263916.txt

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