PROVIDENCE — In December, the Coastal Resources Management Council rejected the advice of the independent agency’s legal and professional staff when it approved cables for an offshore wind power project without first making the developer go through the General Assembly.
Now, the leaders of the General Assembly say the council was wrong to bypass them. As the CRMC staff said all along, the law “clearly requires legislative approval,” House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in a joint statement Tuesday
“We expect the applicant to comply with the law by requesting legislative action regarding this substantial project,” Shekarchi and Ruggerio said. “We are exploring all enforcement options available to the General Assembly to ensure compliance with state law.”
The statement from the legislative leaders, in response to a question from The Boston Globe, is over an early part of the approval process for the proposed 704-megawatt project proposed by the developer Ørsted and the utility Eversource: a lease for submerged lands in Rhode Island waters, and related questions over payments related to that lease.
But it speaks to broader discontent over the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, an independent state regulatory agency that some environmental advocates want to replace, and to the push-and-pull over what some see as a huge economic opportunity in wind power.
The environmental group Save The Bay first flagged the issue over the CRMC ignoring the staff’s recommendations on the Revolution Wind’s cables, saying it served as a reminder for the need to overhaul the agency.
The CRMC is made up of two main parts: the professional staff, and the politically appointed council. Though the council relies on the staff to make its decisions, the council members don’t always follow the staff’s advice.
One recent time was in December during the approval process for the cable.
In its report to the council, the staff raised no objections to CRMC approving the cables. They would bring power from the project, about 15 miles south of mainland Rhode Island, to Quonset Point in North Kingstown via the West Passage.
But the staff recommended that the council also require the developer to get General Assembly approval for what’s called a submerged lands lease. The staff had pointed to a state law on large-scale filling projects in state waters.
The council, though, removed the requirement that Revolution Wind go to the General Assembly for an annual submerged lands lease and to set a lease fee before construction started.
In issuing an assent in December, the CRMC was not also issuing a lease. Instead it was giving the go-ahead to start work on the lease, which apparently hasn’t been issued yet. The key contention now is who calls the shots on that lease and its fee: the CRMC, or the General Assembly.
A CRMC representative did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement Tuesday in response to the comment from legislative leaders, a spokesperson for Revolution Wind noted it got what’s called an assent from CRMC to install and operate the cable in state waters. That assent requires an annual fee, “and we will work with CRMC and the General Assembly to meet that requirement in a manner that does not delay permitting of the project,” the spokesperson said.
At the CRMC meeting on Dec. 13, Robin Main, an attorney for Revolution Wind, argued that the General Assembly didn’t have to get involved in the submerged lands lease.
“We believe the General Assembly has delegated sole exclusive authority for the leasing of submerged and filled lands and the giving of licenses for that land directly to the CRMC,” Main argued before the council.
In its vote that night, the council removed the requirement to go to the General Assembly for a lease. The council kept in place a number of other requirements that the staff had recommended, including requirements around the burial of the cable under the seabed.
In doing so, it courted controversy yet again.
“We believe that this is another in a long series of problematic council actions — including the Champlin’s Marina debacle — that is a reminder of the immediate need for CRMC reform,” Save The Bay’s advocacy director, Topher Hamblett, said in an online posting about the situation.
The project will still need additional approvals from the CRMC and other regulators; developing wind power projects is a long and winding road through many layers of bureaucracy. But the vote on Dec. 13 was an important early step.
Separately, the package also included a more than $3 million fund to compensate the commercial and charter fishing industries for the potential impacts of the cable. The 704-megawatt project would bring 400 megawatts of power to Rhode Island, and, supporters say, good-paying, union jobs.
Shekarchi said in an email he was “keeping an open mind on the CRMC restructuring bills.” One of those bills would replace the CRMC with an agency modeled after the Department of Environmental Management, the most extensive of the three. The others would create the position of legal counsel for the agency and allow the executive director to fill, if not filled within 60 days, a hearing officer position. The position was funded in an earlier budget but Governor Dan McKee hasn’t appointed anyone to it.