BOSTON (AP) – As the nation increasingly looks to its oceans for energy, Massachusetts is putting the final touches on a vast regulatory map designed to plot out where wind farms, and other offshore projects, can be located in its coastal waters.

A year ago, Gov. Deval Patrick signed Massachusetts’ Oceans Act, a first-in-the-nation effort to create a single document to cover a myriad of ocean activities while drawing lines around areas considered too environmentally sensitive for development.

The law requires Massachusetts to make sure all decisions and permits related to state-controlled waters up to three miles from the coast conform to a single, science-based management plan, instead of being considered on a patchwork basis.

It’s more than just an exercise in bureaucratic rule-making.

Massachusetts is home to Cape Wind, the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm. The 130-turbine project, to be located in federal waters off Nantucket Sound, recently cleared a key state hurdle and is awaiting final federal approval.

But Cape Wind is only one of many proposed ocean-based development projects.

A second offshore wind farm has been proposed in Buzzards Bay and another company is pushing to build an offshore berth to receive tanker deliveries of liquefied natural gas, which would be pumped through an underwater pipeline to Fall River.

Rather than dealing with future proposals in a piecemeal manner, Massachusetts decided to create an ocean map with hard boundaries isolating development areas. Other states, including California, have laws in place to create marine conservation areas, but Massachusetts’ law is more comprehensive.

A draft version of the map is set to be unveiled July 1 with a final version in place by January.

“The plan carefully designates areas of especially sensitive ecosystems that are not appropriate for infrastructure development and areas that would be appropriate,” said Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles. “You are going to see lines on the map.”

Bowles drafted the planning document with the help of a 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission created by the law and aided by an advisory committee of scientists with expertise in marine sciences. Those involved in the process spent a year meeting with key groups and holding 18 “public listening sessions” across the state.

Besides regulating development, the plan is also designed to help guard the fragile ocean habitat, including fishing stocks of cod, and the migration paths of endangered right whales.

Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation for the Conservation Law Foundation, said projects like Cape Wind revealed big holes in the state’s management of it coastal resources.

“It really wasn’t until various ocean energy projects were proposed in Massachusetts that people sat up and said our regulatory framework is not built to dealt with this,” she said. “Regulators never envisioned gas pipelines and offshore LNG terminals and tidal turbines and wind farms.”

When finished, Massachusetts’ plan will be incorporated into the state’s existing coastal zone management plan and be enforced through its regulatory and permitting processes, including the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.

Other New England states are also taking a harder look at regulating offshore development.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci created a wind-power task force that called for streamlining the review process for wind power projects and an ocean energy task force to work on recommendations for wind, tidal and wave energy from the Gulf of Maine.

Rhode Island is drafting its own coastal zoning map to better define and regulate current and future uses of the waters off its coast – in large part a reaction to the interest in offshore energy projects.

“There are certainly increasingly more users out there, so there’s a need to manage and define what’s out there because we really want to protect the current uses and habitats,” said Laura Ricketson-Dwyer, spokeswoman for Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council.

Elements of the Massachusetts Oceans Act are also echoed in a major climate bill working its way through Congress.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would impose the first nationwide limits on the pollution blamed for global warming.

The bill also includes language requiring federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work with coastal states to develop offshore wind and ocean energy technology in a manner that protects ecosystems.

Laura Burton Capps of the Ocean Conservancy said it’s not surprising that the federal government and other states are beginning the process of creating more comprehensive regulatory maps for the siting of offshore projects.

“If we don’t plan now, we won’t be economically efficient or environmentally sustainable,” she said. “If we don’t do it now, before all this construction begins, we are going to be in trouble down the road.”

AP-ES-05-30-09 1153EDT

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