Fresh Air for Cape Wind

It hasn’t been an easy road for the Cape Wind Project, an ambitious privately funded (with public subsidies) attempt to build a large, 130-turbine wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, in Nantucket Sound. But the latest attempt to scuttle the project—an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act introduced by Senator John Warner (R-VA) has been withdrawn, to the great relief of environmentalists following the issue closely. Before the amendment was withdrawn, Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association called it “A prime example of putting parochial politics above sound energy policy.”

When I visited Cape Cod October 6, supporters of the plan were gloomy that this latest chess move by opponents would force them back to the beginning of a process that began in 2001. The permitting process has been a long, hard slog for Cape Wind, which has spent an estimated $15 million trying to get its offshore farm built. With Warner’s amendment lifted (reportedly because of the objections of House Republicans), the next step is the release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). When it will appear is anyone’s guess, and again politics are involved.

For the record, Warner’s family has property whose view would be affected by the Cape Wind Project. So does Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), whose famous “compound” is in Hyannis, near Ground Zero. Everybody on the Cape has an opinion about the project, though it’s not generally expressed with the usual bumper stickers and lawn signs. Instead, there are intense activist groups on both sides of the fence, and public opinion polls that indicate a population that is dramatically split on the project. (The tide has been turning somewhat against it after a concerted media campaign by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The Alliance has some environmental trappings, but its founder, Doug Yearly, is a board member of Marathon Oil, a winner of the Toxic Action Center’s “Dirty Dozen Award.”)

Many observers expected the Cape Wind EIS to be released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September. Instead, this voluminous document is reportedly sitting on the desk of one Raymond DuBois, an undersecretary of defense in the Pentagon for military installations and environmental programs. Does the Cape Wind Project have national security implications? It’s hard to imagine.

Ten New England-based environmental groups (including the Union of Concerned Scientists, MASSPIRG, Clean Water Action and the Massachusetts Climate Action Network) have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the release of the EIS, as well as any correspondence related to the delay. “We are deeply disturbed by this latest round of delays in releasing the [draft] EIS,” says Toni Hicks, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “We know that the document has been completed, and we believe that the Army Corps is legally required to make the long-awaited environmental data and analysis available to the public ASAP.”

Even after the draft EIS is released, there will still be a long slog. There will be public hearings, the issuance of a final EIS, more comments, then a permitting decision by the Army Corps. The state has a role also in the form of the Office of Coastal Zone Management. Even if a permit is issued, there’s a good chance the Alliance would then file a lawsuit.

There are articulate voices on both sides. “This project in this place is inappropriate for any number of reasons,” says Alliance Assistant Director Audra Parker. “We’re supportive of renewable energy, but this is risky technology—the first offshore wind project in the U.S.—and do we really want to turn our priceless Nantucket Sound into a scientific experiment?”

The Alliance raises the specter of Cape Wind as a stalking horse for at least three more large-scale wind farms in Nantucket Sound. It says the five million people who visit the Cape and the Islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) every year will be “confronted by 130 huge towers in the Sound,” each 100 feet higher than the famous Bourne and Sagamore bridges.

Supporters say that Cape Wind can replace 113 million gallons of oil per year, that it will reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons per year (the equivalent of taking 162,000 cars off the road) and reduce New England’s wholesale electric prices by $25 million per year. They also say its construction will create 1,000 new jobs.

Bill Eddy, an Episcopal priest, has been a vocal supporter and founding member of Clean Power Now, which supports the project as strongly as the Alliance opposes it. “The wind farm could contribute 75 percent of our electrical needs and have a noticeable and positive impact on our electricity costs for the life of the project,” Eddy says. He also thinks it will improve Cape Cod’s surprisingly bad air quality (it’s 50 percent worse than Boston’s, Eddy says).

Mark Rodgers, a spokesperson for Cape Wind, was somewhat downbeat last week with the double whammy of the Warner amendment and the EIS delay. But he was still fighting. “The Alliance approach has created a lot of unnecessary fears,” he says. “They’ve dramatically outspent us with incessant fear-mongering.” Rodgers believes the EIS, when it is finally released, will be extremely positive about the project and pave the way for the wind farm to begin construction in 2007. But a lot of wind will be blown before then.