SALEM, Ore. – After years of meetings, public testimony and planning, the state of Oregon approved a plan Thursday night that lays out where wave energy companies can locate their projects off its coast.
After taking hours of afternoon public testimony, the state's Land Conservation and Development Commission largely approved the plan the state recommended through the adoption of an amendment to Oregon’s Territorial Sea Plan.
That plan notably establishes four areas off the coast called Renewable Energy Facility Suitability Study Areas. Wave energy companies that want to develop projects in those areas will have fewer hurdles to overcome because planners determined there would be less impact on the environment, fishing and marine life at those sites.
Those four areas are off the coasts of Camp Rilea, Nestucca, Reedsport and Lakeside. In total, the plan approves about 22 square miles or about 2 percent of Oregon’s territorial sea as a development area. Companies could also apply for permits in other areas of Oregon’s territorial waters but the approval process would be more rigorous.
The plan is a big deal, according to Paul Klarin, the marine program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.
"It's one of the first of its kind in the country and first on the West Coast for sure," he said. "And it allows marine renewable energy companies to come to Oregon and go to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and start applying for preliminary permits for specific areas."
Klarin noted that the plan doesn't automatically give companies permission to develop. Interested companies will still need to go through a review process before development could begin.
The plan was not approved without controversy, concern and caution, especially the area off Reedsport where Ocean Power Technologies of Pennington, N.J. already has a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to place 10 wave-energy buoys at the site.
Susan Morgan, a Douglas County commissioner, told state commissioners during her testimony that siting buoys off Reedsport could have a negative impact on the crabbing and fishing industries, which are important to the area's economy.
She argued the plan "does not protect these valuable fishing grounds," and recommended that the area instead be designated as a Resources and Uses Conservation Area because under those standards it must be demonstrated "that the project will have no reasonably foreseeable adverse impacts on inventoried marine resources and uses."
According to Klarin, state commissioners did make a change to the plan for locating off Reedsport. He said the site will remain a Renewable Energy Facility Suitability Study Area as long as Ocean Power Technologies continues to seek federal approval for its projects. Additionally, no other company can use the site, and Ocean Power Technologies can’t transfer or sell it. If it abandons the site, it will then become a Resources and Uses Conservation Area.
Ocean Power Technologies attempted to place a buoy at its Reedsport site in October 2012 but weather thwarted the attempt. It plans to try again in the spring.
On Friday, Gov. John Kitzhaber thanked the commission and stakeholders for their work on the plan in a statement.
"This balanced proposal shows Oregon can thoughtfully support this emerging and promising industry while protecting our coastal communities' quality of life, our commercial and recreational fisheries, and a coastline that all Oregonians treasure."
Many questions of technology and investment still remain unanswered as Oregon moves forward in its effort to harness the energy in waves as a source of electricity. But at least one person during Thursday's public hearing said the process the state went through has been beneficial regardless of outcome.
"Arguably, we now know more about human uses and the sensitive habitats along our coast than in any time in our state's history. And that's a pretty significant thing,” said Gus Gates, with the nonprofit Surfrider. "Even if we never get the buoy off the dock, we're at a much better place today."
Oregon has invested more than $10 million in the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, which funds research and projects to speed development of wave energy in Oregon.
The Oregon coast has become a hotspot for wave power research and development. Waves are bigger on the West Coast than the East Coast by virtue of the prevailing westerly winds and waves get bigger the farther they are from the equator.
The plan goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for approval. Then it will be used by FERC in making decisions on wave energy projects.
The plan does not include a location for the Pacific Marine Energy Center, where Oregon State University and the University of Washington plan to build a wave energy testing center. Located about five miles off shore, that site is outside state territorial waters.
Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press contributed to this report.