Category Archives: Ocean energy

Polls show support for state action on climate change — near and far

If the U.S. government fails to take action on climate change, a majority of Americans would like their states to pick up the ball and run with it.

Some 66 percent of those participating in a national survey agreed with the statement: “If the federal government fails to address the issue of global warming, it is my state’s responsibility to address the problem.”

Question: “Please identify your level of agreement with the following statement … If the federal government fails to address the issue of global warming, it is my state’s responsibility to address the problem.” (Click to enlarge)
Graphic: University of Michigan/Muhlenberg College

Residents of Washington state appear to feel even stronger about the need for state action, according to a survey by The Nature Conservancy, which is preparing for a statewide initiative to be placed on the 2018 general election ballot.

The national survey, by two University of Michigan researchers, demonstrates growing support among Americans for action on climate change, despite very little action by Congress. The last time the question was asked, in 2013, 48 percent of respondents wanted their states to take action. The latest results show an 18-percent increase in the number of people who support state action.

This and several other polls reveal growing concerns among Americans about the negative effects of climate change on human civilization as well as the environment.

Interestingly, the national survey was taken between April 17 and May 16 — before President Trump announced that he would withdraw U.S. support for the Paris climate agreement, which includes clear targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Respondents may have been aware of Trump’s executive order in March to dismantle former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Americans are still somewhat divided along party lines, with Democrats more supportive of state action than Republicans. But the latest national survey reveals that more Republicans may support state action than not, at least within the survey’s margin of error. The survey shows that 51 percent of Republicans believe that states should step up to climate change, compared to 34 percent four years ago.

Support among Democrats for state action went from 57 percent in 2013 to 77 percent this year.

Another survey taken after Trump was elected showed that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the people who voted for him support taxing or regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly half (47 percent) agreed that the U.S. should support the Paris climate agreement. See “Trump Voters and Global Warming.”

I will return to the national perspective in a moment, but first some almost-breaking news from Washington state, where The Nature Conservancy on Monday filed three petitions for possible ballot measures with the Secretary of State’s Office.

All three petitions deal with possible state actions on climate change, but none of them are intended to be used for signature gathering, according to Mo McBroom, government relations director for TNC. The idea, Mo told me, is to see how the Attorney General’s Office writes the ballot titles for the three measures, which is what a voter would read on the ballot.

Polling of Washington state voters after the defeat of a carbon-tax measure in last fall’s election showed that most voters knew little about the content of Initiative 732 when they cast their ballots. Also contributing to the confusion was the ballot title itself, which mentioned taxes but failed to explain that increased taxes on fossil fuels would be offset by reduced sales and business taxes plus a tax rebate for low-income residents.

I should point out that a fair number of environmental groups voiced opposition to the measure, in part because it failed to provide money for clean-energy initiatives. And some worried that the measure would add to state budget problems. More than anything, the mixed messages probably killed the measure.

Now, all the environmental groups as well as business and government supporters are hoping to come together around a single initiative with a high likelihood of success, Mo told me. The specifics of the real initiative are still under review, she said, and one should glean nothing from the three different proposals submitted this week. Once the details are worked out, a final petition will be submitted next January.

“The most important thing is that we are looking to build the broadest base of support for solutions to climate change.,” Mo told me. “Whether it is a carbon tax or fee or a regulatory structure, it is about how we, as a society, make the investments that the public wants.” For further discussion, read Mo’s blog entry posted yesterday in Washington Nature Field Notes.

Personally, I will be watching for the transportation aspects of the coming initiative, since more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state involve the transportation sector — and Mo acknowledged that incentives to encourage cleaner fuels will be essential.

“We want to create an approach that is technology neutral,” she said. “we’re not picking winners and losers. We are creating innovate solutions.”

The Legislature has been struggling for months with Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon tax proposal (PDF 801 kb). If something good comes out of that process, Mo said, the initiative may not be needed. Reporter Phuong Le reported on this issue for the Associated Press.

According to polling last fall (PDF 596 kb), 81 percent of Washington voters believe climate change is happening; 62 percent believe it is caused by human activities; and 69 percent support state action to reduce carbon pollution. Support may be even higher today. The survey was conducted by FM3 Research and Moore Information for The Nature Conservancy and Vulcan.

The national survey by University of Michigan researchers this spring showed that 70 percent of Americans across the country believe that global warming is happening. Barry Rabe, one of the researchers, told me that public opinion has ebbed and flowed somewhat on this issue since these surveys were started in 2008. See the graphic below, or check out the details on the Brookings blog.

Question: From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?
Graphic: University of Michigan/Muhlenberg College

During the early years of former President Obama’s administration beginning around 2009, “there was a very aggressive effort by opposition groups that argued that climate change is a hoax,” Rabe said. “That probably had an impact (on people’s opinions).”

Now people seem to be returning to a stronger belief in climate change and tending to support the understanding that humans are responsible. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to feeling more urgency to take action.

“This may be a case where political figures are at variance with their base,” Rabe said, noting that most Republicans in Congress are showing no inclination to address the issue. But even in some conservative states, such as Texas and Kansas, state lawmakers are doing more than ever to address climate change, in part because of parallel economic interests involving renewable energy.

“Energy politics breaks down very differently depending on the state you are in,” Rabe said.

From a national perspective, all eyes will be on Washington state over the next year or two, as people throughout the country watch to see how people here address climate change, Rabe said. A lot of folks wondered about the rejection of the climate-change initiative in what many view as a pro-environment state, he added. People nationwide did not grasp the nuances of last fall’s vote, but they are interested in what comes next.

Gov. Jay Inslee joined with the governors of California and New York in signing onto a new U.S. Climate Alliance to help meet the goals of the Paris agreement in light of Trump’s efforts to withdraw from the pact. See Timothy Cama’s piece in The Hill.

California and New York have already passed climate-change-emissions legislation, Rave said, so people across the country are wondering how Washington plans to meet its commitment.

Mo McBroom of The Nature Conservancy said officials involved in the climate-change issue in Washington state embrace the leadership role that this state can play.

Amusing Monday: Videos by students try to convince climate skeptics

“How do you convince a climate-change skeptic?” That’s the question posed to high-school film producers in a contest sponsored by the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

I find it interesting that the challenge to create a two-minute video does not include a reason that climate-change skeptics might need convincing. No doubt this was intentional, giving young filmmakers more leeway to be creative. It may result from a recognition that so-called skeptics are not all of one mind when it comes to talking about climate change.

In fact, I’ve observed varying points of view among people who disagree with widely held findings among climate scientists. Consider these types of skeptics:

  • First, there are some people who do not believe that the scientific method could ever produce meaningful answers about climate change.
  • Others accept the methods of science, but they believe the evidence actually shows that the climate is not warming and may even be cooling.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that the climate is warming, but they believe that this is a natural phenomenon and that human-produced greenhouse gases have nothing to do with it.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that climate is warming and that humans are having an effect, but they believe that climatologists have miscalculated the rate of warming.
  • Finally, there are those in the policy realm who admit that they don’t know what is causing climate change, but they believe that the costs of addressing the problem are too great or that government should not be involved.

So I was interested to see how high school filmmakers would address the skeptics of climate change. The winner, Tiamo Minard of Roosevelt High School, simply laid out the facts, as they are best known by climate scientists.

Second place went to a team from Lynwood High School, whose approach was highly personal, showing how people’s everyday actions contribute to climate change. The team included Saron Almaw, Hani Ghebrehiwet, Brittaney Hong, Kristen Nguyen and Jasmine Pel.

Third-place winner, Hazel Camer of Lynnwood High School, simply pounded home the fact that climate change is real and that the consequences for the human race could be severe. One man on the video pooh-poohed the notion that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Then, surprisingly, the next person on the video is U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who is not likely to convince many skeptics.

I found the winning videos entertaining and at times amusing, and I can’t argue with their arguments. But I doubt that they will convince any of the climate-skeptic types that I outlined above. This was truly a difficult challenge, yet one that seems worthwhile. Even professional media experts have trouble addressing this issue, although humor may be helpful. See, for example, the blog post, “Ontario employs humor in climate discussion,” Water Ways, May 15, or “‘Don’t fret,’ says new celebrity video for climate deniers,” Water Ways, Dec. 14, 2015.

Other finalists:

Judging the contest were Laura Jean Cronin, producer/director of award-winning short films currently involved with B47 studios in Seattle; Melanie Harrison Okoro, water quality specialist and the aquatic invasive species coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Region; Cody Permenter, social media manager for Grist, an online news magazine; and Ethan Steinman, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who owns Seattle-based production company Daltonic Films.

A report on last year’s contest can be found on Water Ways, June 27, 2016. It is great to see the work of local filmmakers, and I hope the contest continues.

Two-for-one executive order on regulations headed for showdown

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward to protect people’s health from toxic chemicals, despite an executive order from President Trump that requires two existing regulations to be repealed for every new regulation approved.

Photo: André Künzelmann, Wikimedia commons

On Tuesday, the EPA will hold a public hearing to help develop rules for controlling the use of 10 chemicals evaluated under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act. (See EPA Public Workshop.) As I described in Water Ways, Dec. 1, these high-hazard chemicals could be banned or significantly restricted in their use. Seven of the first 10 under review have been found in drinking water at various sites across the country.

Preliminary information about the chemical risks and the evaluation process can be found on EPA’s TSCA website.

The revised Toxic Substances Control Act received overwhelming bipartisan approval in Congress. Even the chemical industry supported the law, in part because it would limit what states can do to ban chemicals on their own. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

We have yet to see how Trump’s executive order on controlling regulations will affect upcoming rules for toxic chemicals, but the order is already causing some confusion. It has been ridiculed as “nonsensical” by environmental groups, which filed a lawsuit this week seeking to overturn the order. More than a few Republicans say they don’t know how it will work.

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: Snowmen could become victims of climate change

In the video “Save Our Snowmen,” frozen creatures are migrating to cooler regions of the Earth on a mission that could affect their very survival. This amusing video instills an unusual sympathy for snowmen while raising a legitimate concern about climate change in a humorous way.

Various locations, such as Puget Sound, are likely to see some species displaced while others find a new niche as the climate undergoes a continuing change. Mass migration is less likely than population shifts due to predator-prey and disease pressures. I’ve covered some outstanding reports on this topic from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. See Water Ways, Dec. 1, 2015.

The video also draws attention to the producer of this video, Cool Effect, which was founded by Dee and Richard Lawrence on the idea that small actions can mushroom and result in significant declines in greenhouse gases. The group’s motto: “Changing the world, one small step at a time.”

Continue reading

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new meaning, some with dangerous implications.

Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine mammals and other species that live under water.

The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to locate their prey in dark waters.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.

“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about 16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where he was doing research in 2001.

“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.

As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans. Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training and shoreline construction?

“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally devastating to some species.

In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it can’t be good. See Duke University press release.

The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping, people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm to sea life.

The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course, protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a greater degree.

“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”

The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer provided by Discovery Channel.

Bremerton drops from top city in Mayor’s Water Pledge Challenge

Bremerton remains a solid contender in the fifth National Mayor’s Water Pledge Challenge, which encourages people to become involved in water conservation.

At the beginning of this month, Bremerton started out in the contest ranked first among cities of similar size across the United States. Since then, the city has dropped to second, behind Andover, Minn. To get back into first place, a fair number of residents in Bremerton and the surrounding area will need to take the pledge for water conservation before the end of the month.

The pledge involves answering a series of questions about one’s willingness to save water, electricity and other natural resources. To enter, go to www.mywaterpledge.com. When finished with the questionnaire, one can enter a contest to receive some nice prizes.

In 2013 and 2014, Bremerton came in first in the competition among cities of similar size. In 2012 and 2015, Bremerton came in third. In all four years so far, Bremerton has ranked first among similarly sized cities in Washington state.

“Water is Bremerton’s remarkable resource,” Mayor Patty Lent said in a news release (PDF 139 kb). “I encourage all Bremerton residents to pledge to learn more about their water and energy use at home. This challenge, which runs through April, is an exciting opportunity to learn about water wise habits as we engage in a friendly competition with other cities across the nation to create a more sustainable environment.”

Seattle, which is ranked fifth among cities its size, is the only other city in Washington state to rank in the top 10. Olympia is 12th for its size. Port Townsend is 17th. Port Orchard is 74th. Poulsbo is 94th. Bainbridge Island is higher than 500th.

The water pledge, which is available until the end of April, is sponsored by the Wyland Foundation.

New reports of whale territory could shape protection strategy

Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).

Journal

The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and guest editor of the special report.

“They represent the best available information about the times and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean to look at this information and take it into consideration to understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”

Project managers can use information in the report for offshore energy development, military testing and training, shipping, fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise, generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect large areas of whale territory.

Separate articles were written about seven regions of the country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for the West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys and opportunistic sources,” the report says.

BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.

Map

The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah whaling proposal.

The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling, including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if a quota of these whales is reached.

“This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy regional administrator, in a press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the Makah Whale Hunt.

Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs were established for endangered fin whales, because of discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and uncertainty about their population structure.

The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales, beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that future work cover those animals as well as looking into special breeding areas for all the whales.

A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs more information about Southern Resident killer whales before expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. See Water Ways from Feb. 24.

In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any of the following characteristics:

  1. Reproductive areas – Areas and times within which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is found with neonates or calves,
  2. Feeding areas – Areas and times within which aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These either may be persistent in space and time or associated with ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within a larger area that can be delineated,
  3. Migratory corridors – Areas and times within which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the corridor is spatially restricted.
  4. Small and resident population – Areas and times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited geographic extent.

Earth Hour arrives this Saturday night

I admit it seems kind of quaint, but I look forward to turning out all the lights in my house once a year and sitting in the dark. It’s a time to contemplate all our marvels of technology while considering the needs of many people around the world.

Earth Hour is coming up on Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The question of the hour: What can we each do to make things better?

If you get the chance, bring your family and/or friends together. You can go out to dinner or do other things before or after the designated hour, but for 60 minutes let your thoughts wander to other places in the world.

For me, that kind of reflection is enough for the moment, but the Earth Hour website talks about inspiring people to join environmental projects across the globe. By reviewing the website, Earth Hour can become a time of learning about worthwhile causes. Listen to Jason Priestly and others in the video player on this page.

If you want to make a difference, check out the five-step program for creating an Earth Hour event. Maybe think about doing something over the next year and sharing it on the Earth Hour website in 2015.

What I like about Earth Hour is that it unites people from around the world, if only for an hour. For those who wish to take a leadership role, Earth Hour is one place to start. As founder Andy Ridley says in a news release:

“What makes Earth Hour different is that it empowers people to take charge and use their power to make a difference. The movement inspires a mixture of collective and individual action, so anyone can do their part.”

Earth Hour begins each year in New Zealand, the first place the clock strikes 8:30 on the designated Saturday night.

Famous landmarks involved in the lights-out event include the Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; Edinburgh Castle, Scotland; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin; the Eiffel Tower, Paris; the Kremlin, Moscow; and the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe to Asia.

See some photo highlights from previous years

Amusing Monday: Celebrating World Water Day

I’m posting this “Amusing Monday” entry two days early, because today is officially World Water Day, as declared by the United Nations.

Photo by xxxx. Copyright World Water Day, used with permission
Photo by Murli Menon.
Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

I guess the timing is not that important. After all, I don’t expect anyone to go out and march in a World Water Day parade, or fire off water pistols in celebration, or even drink water in excess and then sleep in the next morning. But if you are inclined to celebrate, you may as well celebrate the essential value of water.

The photos on this page are the top choices of Facebook voters in a contest sponsored by World Water Day.

The picture of the white tiger, called “Water Preserves the Earth,” is said to demonstrate that all creatures need water, yet the tiger realizes that this water is polluted and hesitates to drink it.

Photo by Joseph Galea Copyright World Water Day, used with permission
Photo by Joseph Galea
Copyright World Water Day, used with permission

The second photo, called “Water Gives Energy,” illustrates the hope of a future when all children have access to a safe supply of water.

A slide show of the best photos submitted in the context can be found on the World Water Day Flickr page.

Finally, the two videos below provide a strong contrast between technologies available to produce a clean supply of water for everyone.

Tidal power supply coming to Puget Sound

A multi-million-dollar tidal energy project in Admiralty Inlet, north of the Kitsap Peninsula, has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro. Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro
Tidal turbines for Admiralty Inlet are to be provided by OpenHydro.
Graphic courtesy of OpenHydro

The Snohomish County Public Utility District, which was granted a license for the double-tidal-turbine pilot project, says it will be the first “grid-connected array of large-scale tidal energy turbines in the world.” The twin turbines are designed to produce 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power several hundred homes.

“Anyone who has spent time on the waters of Puget Sound understands the power inherent in the tides,” PUD General Manager Steve Klein said in a news release. “In granting this license, the FERC acknowledges the vigilant efforts of the PUD and its partners to test the viability of a new reliable source of clean energy while at the same time ensuring the protection of the environment and existing uses.”

The federal commission acknowledged concerns for fish and wildlife brought forth by area tribes, whale-watch operators and environmental groups. But the pilot project has precautionary measures built in, according to the commission’s order (PDF 503 kb) issued yesterday:

“For these new technologies, where the environmental effects are not well understood, the risks of adverse environmental impacts can be minimized through monitoring and safeguard plans that ensure the protection of the public and the environment.

“The goal of the pilot project approach is to allow developers to test new hydrokinetic technologies, determine appropriate sites for these technologies, and study a technology’s environmental and other effects without compromising the commission’s oversight of a project or limiting agency and stakeholder input…

“A pilot project should be: (1) small; (2) short term; (3) located in non-sensitive areas based on the commission’s review of the record; (4) removable and able to be shut down on short notice; (5) removed, with the site restored, before the end of the license term (unless a new license is granted); and (6) initiated by a draft application in a form sufficient to support environmental analysis.”

Among tribes that fish in the area, the Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the likelihood of underwater turbines violating tribal treaty rights to fish. The turbines have the potential for killing or injuring fish, according to the tribes, and they could become a point of entanglement for fishing nets and anchor lines.

Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet
Tidal turbine location in Admiralty Inlet

“Though we respect the tribes’ perspective and concerns, we disagree that licensing this project will adversely affect their treaty rights,” the commission stated in its order. The license contains no restrictions on fishing, and it requires measures to protect the fish.

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman said tribal officials have not had time to review the license conditions in detail but will do so over the coming days. He said he would consult with legal and technical advisers before laying out possible actions for consideration by the tribal council.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and a board member for Orca Conservancy, said he was disappointed that more people have not recognized the problems that can be created by these turbines — especially in Admiralty Inlet, a primary route for killer whales and many other species.

The turbines will create unusually loud and potentially painful underwater noise, Harris said. This installation is being developed at a time when researchers are coming to understand that noise can disrupt the behavior of killer whales and other marine mammals.

The turbines themselves have open blades that can injure any curious animal getting too close, he noted. And if the turbines become a serious threat, someone must swim down and mechanically stop the blades from turning, something that could take four days.

“I’m not against green energy,” Harris said when I talked to him this morning. “But let’s not put blinders on. I would like to see these turbines located in another spot. Why not Deception Pass?”

Harris said it is critical for people to pay close attention to the pilot project if it goes forward. Everyone should be prepared to stop the experiment if it proves costly to sea life.

The order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains that conditions of approval will protect killer whales and other marine mammals:

“The Near Turbine Monitoring and Mitigation Plan requires detection of fish and should provide observation of nearby killer whales. Those observations combined with the hydrophone monitoring required under the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will allow detection and observation of killer whales if they come near the turbines.

“The adaptive management provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection and Mitigation Plan will also allow adjustments to project operation if potential harm to killer whales is detected or, in the very unlikely event, a whale is injured….

“This license also contains noise-related requirements that will ensure the project does not have detrimental effects on killer whale behavior. The Acoustic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan of this license requires that if the sound level from turbine operation exceeds 120 dB at a distance greater than 750 meters from the turbine … the licensee shall engage the turbine brake until modifications to turbine operations or configuration can be made to reduce the sound level.”

According to several Internet sources, 120 dB is what someone might hear standing near a chainsaw or jack hammer. That level is considered close to the human threshold for pain.

In the Admiralty Inlet area, at least 13 local species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

  • One plant: golden paintbrush, threatened
  • One bird: marbled murrelet, threatened
  • Two marine mammals: Southern Resident killer whales, endangered, and North Pacific humpback whale, endangered
  • Nine fish: Puget Sound Chinook salmon, threatened; Hood Canal summer chum, threatened; Puget Sound steelhead, threatened; bull trout, threatened; green sturgeon, threatened; bocaccio rockfish, endangered; canary rockfish, threatened; yelloweye rockfish, threatened; and Pacific eulachon, threatened.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have concluded that none of the species would be in jeopardy of extinction because of the pilot project.

Experts have concluded that marine mammals, including killer whales, could be subjected to Level B harassment (behavioral shifts) as a result of noise from the turbines. That would be in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act without incidental take authorization. That means the Snohomish PUD must undergo consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service and possibly change its plans before moving forward.

The PUD chose Admiralty Inlet for its swift currents, easy access and rocky seabed with little sediment or vegetation. A cable-control building for connecting to the power grid will be located on Whidbey Island near Fort Casey State Park. The turbines will be located in about 150 feet of water about a half-mile from shore.

The turbines are manufactured by OpenHydro of Dublin, Ireland. Each turbine measures about 18 feet in diameter, with a 414-ton total weight.

According to the PUD, these turbines have been used in ecologically sensitive areas in other parts of the world. One location is Scotland’s Orkney Islands, which features a diverse and productive ecosystem that is home to numerous species of fish, dolphins, seals, porpoises, whales and migrating turtles.

The pilot project has been supported with about $13 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and Bonneville Power Administration along with federal appropriations.

Partners in various aspects of the project include the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sound & Sea Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.