At a time when President Obama and members of Congress are promoting policies to increase renewable sources of electricity, federal regulators are poised to decide the fate of what would be the nation's first major offshore wind project. The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service could decide as soon as next month whether to give the green light to Cape Wind, a massive project that would erect 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound a few miles off Cape Cod, Mass.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's promise that the country will "build a framework for offshore renewable-energy development" would seem to bode well for Cape Wind's future. But not so fast: Despite strong support for renewable energy at the federal level, Cape Wind has been buffeted by strong opposition from some senior politicians in Massachusetts and a deep-pocketed and politically connected local group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The alliance has poured more than $15 million into fighting Cape Wind tooth and nail ever since the project was unveiled in 2001.
The battle is far from over, insists Audra Parker, executive director of the alliance, which argues that the project poses a threat to public safety and would adversely affect Cape Cod's economy. The group says it got a boost on February 13 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a "presumed hazard" determination for Cape Wind, citing potential radar interference from the turbines. "Relocation is the only responsible next step," Parker said in a press release.
But Energy Management, the company behind the project, says it will work with the FAA to find a mutually agreeable solution. For the firm, this is a small bump in what has been a long and tedious road to get the project approved. The company expects to be done with the permitting process this spring: winning a federal lease and securing other approvals from various federal and state agencies. A lot is at stake. Over the past eight years, Energy Management has spent $40 million on everything from oceanographic studies to avian research to installing a data tower, which alone cost $2 million. The company says that 75 percent of the energy needs of Cape Cod and nearby islands can be met by the massive wind farm.
The Cape Wind battle also involves a face-off between titans of the energy industry. On the board of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound are William I. Koch and John McMillian, both of whom are presidents of multibillion-dollar fuel-distribution companies. Running the show at Cape Wind is Jim Gordon, president of Energy Management, the New England company he founded more than 30 years ago.
Each side has pushed for federal policies that would favor its cause: The alliance has spent about $1.4 million lobbying against Cape Wind in Washington, while Energy Management has doled out some $1 million on federal lobbying.
Gordon remains optimistic that federal regulators will approve the project, and he would not say what action he would take if Interior denies him an offshore lease. "Any rational observer that has followed this process, the public hearings, the thousands of written comments, will see that this project has been determined to be in the public interest," Gordon said. If the project is approved by federal and state regulators, construction could begin this year, he said, and the giant windmills could be producing electricity by late 2011 or early 2012.
Ever since its unveiling, Cape Wind has attracted high-profile opponents, among them Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose family compound sits on 6 acres of waterfront along Nantucket Sound in Hyannis Port, Mass., and Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. But Energy Management has important supporters, too, including Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Ian Bowles, the state's Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary.
Patrick, who wants Massachusetts to lead the way on renewable energy, identifies the proposed wind farm as critical to meeting that goal. "We must have Cape Wind," he has told the New England Clean Energy Council. "I believe Cape Wind is good for Massachusetts, for our economy, for our environment."
Other state lawmakers, however, have been reluctant to comment publicly on the project, other than to affirm their general support for the environmental review process. Even key Democratic proponents of renewable energy in Massachusetts such as Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and Sen. John Kerry have stayed relatively quiet on Cape Wind.
Late last year, the state's Democrat-on-Democrat debate heated up when the Interior Department issued a final and favorable report on the project in the 11th hour of the Bush administration. Kennedy criticized the move, saying he did not believe that Interior's stance would ultimately be upheld. "By taking this action, the Interior Department has virtually assured years of continued public conflict and contentious litigation," the senator said.
As Cape Wind's most vocal opponent on Capitol Hill, Kennedy contends that Energy Management won a sweetheart deal because the company was not subject to competitive bidding requirements that Congress imposed in 2005, after the project was begun. Kennedy further maintains that Cape Wind has proceeded even though the Minerals Management Service has never released final rules governing the process of siting offshore wind farms.
The alliance's Parker agrees, arguing that granting Energy Management a permit before the official rules are in place would be "putting the cart before the horse." Her group is prepared to go to court if Interior grants Cape Wind a lease, she said.
Some Cape Wind supporters, as well as political conservatives critical of Kennedy, say that the senator's opposition to the wind farm has more to do with his family's treasured real estate on Nantucket Sound than anything else. They charge that Kennedy is more concerned with protecting the water view from his home than in promoting renewable energy.
Salazar also has some history that could affect a decision on Cape Wind. As a senator from Colorado, Salazar helped craft legislation in 2005 that obligated Interior to issue rules for siting offshore renewable-energy projects. He blames the Bush administration for the delay. In an announcement earlier this month, Salazar committed to releasing a final rule-making for offshore renewables in the coming months.
Even without a federal rule, Cape Wind's environmental supporters argue that the Massachusetts project has already undergone extensive review. Cape Wind "had to get through more environmental [laws and regulations] than any environmental project in the history of the country," insists Kert Davies, the research director for Greenpeace. The veteran environmental group has waged a hard-hitting publicity campaign on behalf of the wind farm, featuring television ads attacking Kennedy and Delahunt.
In August 2005, Greenpeace got personal with the Kennedy family, specifically Robert Kennedy Jr., a well-known environmental lawyer. The group set sail on Nantucket Sound with a large sign that read: "Bobby you are on the wrong boat; yes to Cape Wind."
Among the major groups joining Greenpeace in supporting Cape Wind are the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Green Decade Coalition. Massachusetts residents back the project overwhelmingly; in several polls conducted in 2008 by the Civil Society Institute and CBS, Cape Wind's approval rating exceeded 80 percent.
Wind-power supporters argue that additional offshore projects must be built if the country is to meet Obama's call to produce more of its energy from renewable sources. According to a July 2008 report by the Energy Department, wind power could provide 20 percent of the nation's total electricity needs by 2030, and offshore farms would play a big part. "For most coastal states, offshore wind resources are the only indigenous energy source capable of making a significant energy contribution," the report states.
Offshore wind is more potent than onshore wind. "The deal with wind is, the higher the wind speed, the better it is. The best stuff by far is offshore," said Fred Loxsom, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Energy Studies at Eastern Connecticut State University. "This location [Cape Wind] is particularly good because it's close to the high population of Boston and it's in relatively shallow water," he said. "In deeper ocean waters, there are bigger problems with siting the turbines."
While the U.S. has yet to produce an offshore siting policy, Europe has sailed ahead. Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have operational offshore wind farms. The European economic recovery plan, which is comparable to the U.S. stimulus package, allocates nearly $650 million to help finance and develop the next generation of offshore wind farms.
There are plans for offshore wind farms in Delaware, Georgia, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas, mostly in federal waters. Once the final rules are issued, these projects will be able to move forward.
"There is a strong push for renewable-energy projects, and this is not a Republican or Democrat issue," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm. "You're going to find more and more people finding clean-energy solutions whether it's under [former Interior Secretary Dirk] Kempthorne and Bush, or Salazar and Obama."
This article appears in the Feb. 21, 2009, edition of National Journal.