Tuesday, January 15, 2008

At last, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

It has taken more than 7 years, and, by my conservative estimate, over 10,000 pages of studies, reviews and testimony. But yesterday Cape Wind, the proposal to construct the first U.S. offshore wind farm, reached an historic milestone. The U.S. Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) issued its comprehensive review of the potential impacts of erecting 130 turbines in the shallow waters off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

MMS's unambiguous assessment is that the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the project would be, for the most part, negligible or minor. The one and only "major" impact according to the review would be the altered view from boats.

In a sharp departure from his predecessor Mitt Romney (Republican candidate for president) who vigorously opposed the project, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick noted that the
"Publication of the draft federal environmental impact statement is a significant step for this project and indeed for renewable energy more broadly." (GW)

Cape Wind proposal clears big obstacle

The nation's first proposed offshore wind-energy project cleared its most formidable hurdle yesterday as the US Minerals Management Service declared that the wind farm off Cape Cod would have little lasting impact on wildlife, navigation, and tourism.

The agency's nearly 2,000-page draft environmental impact statement makes clear that the federal government is inclined to approve construction of the 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound, 5 miles from the nearest coastline, unless major new concerns arise during a public comment period. Federal approval would probably come late this year or early next year, and remaining state permits are not expected to be a major obstacle, given that Governor Deval Patrick is in favor of the project.

With rising oil and natural gas prices enhancing its financial feasibility, the wind farm, expected to cost more than $1 billion, could be operating by 2011, its developer, Cape Wind Associates, said yesterday.

Jim Gordon (in above photo), president of Cape Wind, expressed glee during a news conference yesterday, saying, "Any rational observer will understand that this project is not going to produce a negative environmental impact. . . . This report validates that this is the right project in the right place at the right time."

The Minerals Management Service reviewed Cape Wind's impact on noise, coastal vegetation, wildlife, fisheries, tourism, and aviation, as well as other issues. Wildlife and fish would be affected minimally, except for a "moderate" impact on some birds, the report said. And, Rodney Cluck, who oversaw the agency's review, said, "we feel we can mitigate most of those" effects. The report determined there would be a "minor" impact on tourism.

The altered ocean view from boats was the only "major" impact the federal analysis cited - although the analysis did not attempt to weigh the 440-foot-high wind turbines' aesthetics, a subjective issue at the heart of opposition to the project since it was proposed in 2001.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who would be able to see the wind farm on the horizon from his family's Hyannis compound, and former governor Mitt Romney maneuvered to kill the project on several occasions because of fears that the turbines would be unsightly, hurting tourism and property values.

But Romney's successor and environmentalists celebrated the draft decision yesterday, calling it a fundamental step in getting the project built and furthering the state's goal to become a hub of clean energy. The wind farm is expected to generate, on average every year, the equivalent of 75 percent of the energy needs for Cape Cod and the Islands and offset emissions of nearly a million tons of carbon dioxide, the key global warming gas.

"Publication of the draft federal environmental impact statement is a significant step for this project and indeed for renewable energy more broadly," Patrick said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the lead opposition group to Cape Wind, said the federal agency's report "missed the mark" and the group was assembling a team of specialists to review the project.

In a statement, the alliance noted that the federal review concluded that electricity generated by the wind turbines is projected to cost twice the current price in Southeastern Massachusetts. Audra Parker, director of strategic planning for the alliance, said there were also serious concerns about hazards to air traffic. "Public safety is a significant issue," she said. "Public safety could trump renewable energy."

US Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy and a wind farm opponent whose district includes the Cape and Islands, released a letter yesterday sent to him Jan. 11 by the acting director of the Federal Aviation Administration, which said the wind farm could have "previously unidentified adverse effects" on planes from Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. Last night, an FAA spokeswoman said the agency was still reviewing the Cape Wind project.

For environmentalists, one of the most contentious issues has revolved around the wind farm's potential harm to birds, which could be killed by the turbines' fast, rotating blades. That concern led Massachusetts Audubon two years ago to call for more study of the project.

The Minerals Management Service report suggested there could be some bird deaths but that the number is not likely to be large. It concluded the federally endangered roseate tern would not be affected as some environmentalists had feared, because the bird tends to hug the coast.

Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Massachusetts Audubon, said the federal report appears to satisfy his group's concerns. "They have done an adequate and thorough job of reviewing the potential environmental impacts with regard to avian life," he said.

The report notes that eggs and larvae of bottom-dwelling fish will experience some harm from construction of the wind farm. But it found that fish will probably not be harmed from the sound, vibration, and lighting from the wind farm's operation.

The report did say there would be a moderate impact on the Figawi Race - a three-day sailing event on Nantucket Sound each year that draws thousands of sailors and visitors.

State agencies and the US Environmental Protection Agency, which previously raised concerns about the project's impact, especially on birds, said they would review the report and make comments at hearings in March or in writing before the public comment period expires March 20.

Kennedy's office issued a statement saying that the senator would review the report to "see if it adequately addresses the many concerns raised by this project."

The wind farm's twisting path over the last six years has drawn national attention, especially as a suite of politicians has tried various maneuvers to block it in Congress. None has succeeded. Supporters say opponents are mostly wealthy landowners with "not in my backyard" syndrome. Those against the project say the developers are staking private claim to a cherished public resource.

Congress gave the Minerals Management Service authority over the Cape Wind project - and all offshore wind farms - as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The US Army Corps of Engineers had issued a mostly positive draft environmental impact statement, but it did not have the authority, for example, to work out lease payments or look at the project's technical aspects. So the minerals agency undertook a new review.

The agency is expected to charge Cape Wind lease payments. Maureen Bornholdt, the agency's program manager for alternative energy and alternate use, said the amount of payments would not be determined until later.

The project still needs nine state and local permits, including a license and water quality certificate from the state Department of Environmental Protection; highway access permits from the Massachusetts Highway Department; and state railway crossing approval and local permits from Yarmouth and Barnstable.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.


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