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Not Easy To Find Room For Ocean Energy

OPT Inc.

GLENEDEN BEACH, Ore. - It goes without saying that the Pacific Ocean is vast. So it may come as a surprise to hear the sea described as "crowded." Perhaps even too crowded to make room for the nascent industry of wave and tidal energy.  Taxpayers and investors have pumped tens of millions of dollars into finding ways to turn the ocean's power into electricity.  In recent weeks, high stakes negotiations to identify wave energy sites on the Oregon Coast are finally getting somewhere.

It's the end of the beginning of what has been a long and fraught process.  In a windowless conference hall at Salishan Resort, a state advisory committee wraps up with a light-hearted but telling vote.

"Please signify by saying 'argh'," says the maker of a motion to adjourn.

The loud "argh" in response comes from 25 people who've spent months parsing ocean maps in an attempt to balance competing interests.

"It's hard to fit a new industry into an already crowded territorial sea," says Nick Edwards of Coos Bay. He advocates for commercial fishermen like himself. He says the placement of industrial energy generators on top of prime crabbing grounds could spell disaster for the local fishing fleet.

But Edwards says major fishing groups realized early on that just saying "no" was not an option.

"We felt it was better to form a group to work with wave energy because we were basically looking down the barrel of a shotgun -- and it was loaded," he says. "Well, that time is now. It's here. It's readily apparent that it's coming to Oregon. There's a lot of horsepower, there's a lot of funding behind it. It's better to be a part of the process than to ignore the process. The head-in-the-sand doesn't work."

Sitting a few seats away at the table is Jason Busch, director of the state-funded Oregon Wave Energy Trust. That group wants the Northwest to be in the forefront of a new global industry, if it can be done responsibly.

"There has to be a way to do this," Busch says. "There has to be a way to make it work. Every form of development in the country displaces something. You can say that about every road, every church that has ever been built impacts somebody."

The many vested interests around this table searched high-and-low for squares of ocean that present the least conflict. It's the kind of search being repeated pretty much every place in the world ocean energy developers come calling.

The latest example: British Columbia, where community stakeholders, tribal groups and government agencies are working on different ocean zoning scenarios for the west coast of Vancouver Island and points north.

The Oregon panel eventually recommended that the state allow no more than four or five commercial wave energy projects for starters. They also said the projects should be equitably distributed up and down the coast.

Those are acceptable "sideboards" to Greg Lennon from Ocean Power Technologies, a project builder.

"It's an indication to the wave energy industry that Oregon is looking to work with wave energy companies in finding sites," Lennon says. "They've identified a few, which is perfect for companies to move forward with to prove out their technologies."

Ranked highest by the state advisory panel is a site near Astoria in front of the National Guard's Camp Rilea. That location is less controversial than others because the ocean acreage is already off-limits some of the time during target practice.

Meanwhile, in Washington, active permitting for marine energy is down to one public utility. Snohomish PUD is exploring tidal power generation near the top of Puget Sound. First in the water though next spring is a commercial scale wave energy generator near Reedsport, Oregon. It will eventually become a 10-buoy demonstration project. It got a license before the ocean zoning process gathered momentum.

Oregon's wave energy siting debate now moves from the Territorial Sea Plan Advisory Committee to its parent panel, the Ocean Policy Advisory Council. Whatever OPAC recommends gets passed on to the Land Conservation and Development Commission, which could vote on preferred development sites at its January 24, 2013 meeting in Salem.

That guidance to potential marine energy developers applies only to ocean waters within three miles of the coastline. The ocean beyond is exclusively under federal jurisdiction, but Oregon officials hope federal agencies will make use of the state's planning to guide compatible development in deep water.

On the Web:

Oregon Ocean Planning (
Reedsport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)

Marine spatial planning off Vancouver Island (West Coast Aquatic)

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.