Thursday, September 15, 2011

Spatial Planning for New Energy Development on the Oregon Coast

Robert Bailey, Oregon Coastal Management Program (

Schematic of the OPT wave energy system

Science plays a big role in finding a place for new “hydrokinetic energy” projects into Oregon’s crowded coastal waters. In late 2007, coastal communities and ocean fishermen were up in arms over plans to put wave energy generating facilities smack dab in the middle of crabbing and other valuable fishing areas. In response, the Governor charged the Oregon Coastal Management Program with the task of working with scientists, stakeholders, agencies, interest groups and others to ensure that new ocean energy devices avoid impacts on ocean fisheries, recreation, and other uses, and protect valuable ecological areas. This kind of effort has today become known as “marine spatial planning.” After more than three years, Oregon is now rounding the corner headed for the homestretch of this effort.

A lot of factors have come into play to create conditions that enable us to incorporate a high level of scientific data into a marine planning process. First, our state ocean policies explicitly require it. Second is wide-spread availability of high-powered, low-cost information technologies, such as ArcGIS, Google Earth, on-line information resources such as the Oregon Coastal Atlas, and creation of “decision-support tools” using Open Source software. These are enabling us, along with scientists, stakeholders, and the public, to use desktop computers at home, public meetings, and in the office to find, view, and assess a variety of data about Oregon’s nearshore marine environment and its uses.

A key factor are the people involved and the fact that, over time, an informal network of scientists and other data providers has emerged along with a similar network of data managers and users within state and federal agencies and NGOs. A principal task has been to find and acquire relevant datasets and then create interactive geospatial databases that allow various data to be used together in a spatially-explicit format. Fortunately, a lot of smart (mostly young) people and some terrific technology, including some we have helped to advance, are enabling us to build a credible scientific data base and decision-support tools to support this planning process.

Even with these supportive conditions, it is still not as easy as one would think to use scientific data to support marine spatial planning decisions. Despite vast amounts of data collected over the years about the marine environment (and believe me, we do know a lot!), pulling the various kinds of data into decision-support frameworks is daunting and time-consuming. The marine environment is vast, complex in at least four-dimensions, and, as we all know, highly mutable over many spatial and temporal scales. While these existing data can be (and have been) used to frame a broad understanding of how the marine environment (in this case off Oregon) functions over time and across ocean space, surprisingly little of it is directly useful to making spatially explicit planning or management decisions (“here, not there”) for a point in time (“now”).

Add to this the fact that new field studies and even simple observations of the seafloor with high-definition video constantly reveal to us how little we truly know about even the ocean within just the first few miles from shore. Add in the reluctance of scientists in one discipline to use data collected from another and the demands of stakeholders and agency decision-makers for certainty, and we have a very complex situation for ensuring scientific integrity of our final plan.

Fortunately, a plan is just a plan. It is a guide, not reality. It will frame where energy development should not go and suggest where it might. We don’t need to know everything now. Many key questions about potential environmental effects of placing one or many wave-energy devices in our nearshore environment can be answered once we know the specific size, shape, and function of the technology involved and the exact location in which it will be placed. Policies already adopted require significant monitoring and rigorous assessment of potential effects such as physical alteration of wave regime on shoreline processes, changes in sediment transport, creation of new habitat structures where none exist, electromagnetic field effects on sharks and rays, contamination from paints and lubricating fluids, entanglement by whales and pinnepeds in a network of anchoring lines, and effects of lights on birds.

Our job as the agency charged with adopting the plan is to make sure the plan is scientifically defensible and is accepted by stakeholders, the public, and agencies as being the best we could do with what we know. The plan cannot outrun the science or faith in that science. So that will likely lead us, when all is said and done, to be fairly cautious about designating “ecological exclusion areas,” “areas important to fisheries,” and identifying areas where energy development will be allowed. But over the past three years we have created the conditions for incorporating science into the planning and…ultimately…the decision-making process. Science is, after all, the best way for us “decision-makers” to account for the complexities and uncertainties of our marine environment so that we don’t end up making decisions that subsequent generations will look upon and ask “what the heck were they thinking!”

This post relates to Topic 6: Management problems to be discussed during the Synthesis Sessions at CERF 2011. 

(Figure credit:

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