At a recent meeting, federal and state officials said they are just beginning to evaluate a bid for a small wind farm in deep water off Boothbay, but already many ocean stakeholders are concerned. Some environmental and fishing groups feel they don’t have a strong enough voice in the process, wind proponents say the approval process is moving too slow and some officials admit there are critical data gaps to properly assess the project’s potential impact.

On December 8, state and federal officials of the Maine Task Force of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) met in South Portland to discuss an application of the Norwegian energy company Statoil to build a 12-megawatt wind farm. The four wind turbines would be put atop floating platforms rather than anchored directly to the ocean floor, which would make it the first floating wind farm in the United States and the largest such project in the world.

A week earlier, BOEM announced it had verified the completeness of Statoil’s application and would begin the lengthy process of evaluating the proposal. An application for the project must also be approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission; a Maine PUC official said at the meeting that it was considering several proposals for wind or combination wind and tidal projects, including the Statoil plan; a decision on the proposals will be released in the next few months.

Aditi Mirani, BOEM Project Director for Maine, emphasized that this was just the beginning of the process and that BOEM will be looking for public input.

The project would be considered a prototype, with just four turbines generating 12 MW on floating platforms. It would be located within a 22-mile area of the Gulf of Maine.

United States Coast Guard Marine Transportation Specialist George Detweiler said the proposed wind farm location didn’t seem to interfere with popular shipping routes that went to Portland.

“Statoil picked a fairly decent location, as far as traffic goes,” Detweiler said.

However, he cautioned that this initial assessment was based on a snapshot of 2009 and 2010 shipping traffic; 2011 data had yet to be analyzed. Also, the assessment only tracked large ships using required transponders. Pleasure boats, lobster boats and large ships that shut the transponders off won’t show up in the Coast Guard data.

Detweiler added that the location selected might prove more problematic if Statoil tried to expand its wind farm in the future. He wished Statoil had been able to submit a plan for expansion with its initial plan.

“They really don’t know, so we don’t know,” said Detweiler.

There is less information to gauge the potential impact of the turbines on endangered shorebirds, said Linda J. Welch, a biologist with the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. There is particular concern of the potential impact on endangered piping plover and roseate tern populations. Welch said Statoil incorrectly used an UMaine bird study that was meant to focus just for the area surrounding Monhegan Island to project impact on birds in the Boothbay region. In reality, the scientific community still knows little about shorebirds and seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, as a whole.

“We have basically no information as to where those birds go to find food,” Welch said.

During the public question-and-answer period, fishermen and fishing officials expressed concern over a perceived lack of communication in the process. Some said the fishing community felt caught off-guard by the announcement of the application for the permit, but fishermen are beginning to take notice.

“The phone is starting to ring; emails are starting to come in,” said Pat Keliher, acting commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Portland tuna fisherman Chris Weiner wishes Statoil and BOEM had consulted with the fishing community earlier in the process. The area proposed for the wind farm is located in prime fishing ground for trawling, shrimping, gillnets and lobstering, Weiner said. A NOAA map displayed briefly during the meeting also showed high fish density in the proposed farm location.

“You couldn’t have put a box in a worse place, in my opinion,” Weiner said.

And Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, worried there isn’t a lot of great data on lobstering trap patterns to quantify the possible effects of the wind turbines and the laying of the transmission line in that area. Only about 8 percent of lobstermen who fish in federal waters contribute data, she estimated. And lobstering information that is collected often must be kept confidential by collecting agencies.

Both BOEM members and advocates for fishermen agreed there needed to be more outreach to connect with the fishing community during the process. Several BOEM members said they needed to hear more from the fishing community, but advocates for fishermen wished BOEM was more aggressive in its outreach. McCarron pointed out that there was no contact information on the BOEM website for the Maine Task Force members.

“We need to figure out how to reach out to those user groups more and more,” said Ben Martens, policy director for the Maine Coast (formerly Midcoast) Fishermen’s Association.

But while many worried about the project being on a fast track, at least one wind power advocate felt the process was being slowed by one-size-fits-all regulations. Dr. Habib J. Dagher, an UMaine professor of civil and structural engineering, said that at a recent conference he attended on offshore wind energy, a presentation emphasized that the U.S. lagged badly behind other industrialized nations in offshore wind power development. While other nations were generating thousands of megawatts of wind energy offshore, the U.S. had failed to generate one megawatt, Dagher said. Part of that delay was because prototype projects like this one are being regulated like proposals for large-scale wind projects, he said. He wanted different criteria for evaluating prototype projects.

“Unless we put something in the water and see what happens, we’re never going to know,” Dagher said.