Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bellweather friends and foes

Just as many had predicted, Cape Wind is shaping up to be one of President-elect Obama's first major challenges when he assumes office. It may not register as high on the national awareness meter as the economic or health care crises, but as Randall Luthi, the outgoing director of the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Services observed, it is a "bellweather" for the future of the nation's offshore wind industry. And, let there be no mistake about it, offshore wind energy will have emerge as a major player in the next decade if the Obama Administration is going to meet its ambitious clean energy goals.

Now that the nation's first proposed wind farm has received a favorable review from the agency responsible for allowing it to be constructed, it will be up to President Obama's team to permit it for construction. Cape Wind developer Jim Gordon (above left) hopes this will happen very soon after Mr. Obama takes the oath of office. However, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (above right) vows to continue his fight against the project that Mr. Gordon proposes to build off the coast of Hyannis.

Winds of Change for Cape Cod?

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Insider
January 16, 2009

A controversial plan for a $1.2 billion, privately-run wind farm off the Cape Cod shoreline cleared a major hurdle today when the Interior Department deemed it environmentally safe.

The project, which has been the subject of a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign, could present President-elect Barack Obama with a sticky political problem early in his administration.

Obama has made alternative energy a cornerstone of his plan to revive the economy -- and reiterated that stance today with a visit to an Ohio factory that makes parts for wind turbines. But one of his closest friends in Congress, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), has been one of the most outspoken opponents of what would be the nation's largest offshore wind farm, along with his nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Meanwhile, another Obama political ally, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), has strongly supported the Cape Wind project.

Sen. Kennedy said today that the project would not be green-lighted for some time. "I do not believe that this action by the Interior Department will be sustained," Kennedy said in a statement. "By taking this action, the Interior Department has virtually assured years of continued public conflict and contentious litigation."

Adding to the hubbub is a formidable lobbying effort by Cape Cod residents opposed to the project, led Bill Koch, a major GOP donor who has funded an expensive campaign to halt construction.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, financed in part by Koch, has spent millions on lobbying fees on the issue since 2003, collecting cash from about 4,000 donors.

The 800-page report by Interior's Minerals Management Service (PDF) released today said the 25-square-mile offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound would pose little or no threat to wildlife and fish in the area. Barring any further objections from lawmakers, a final "record of decision" for the project would be issued in 30 days.

Randall Luthi, the director of Minerals Management, said the next decision would come from the Obama administration. "It is up to them to decide," he said.

Representatives from the House committees on Natural Resources and on Transportation and Infrastructure said they were reviewing the report and did not have any immediate comments on its findings.

"It will be up to the incoming administration to build on this record to ensure that the project is permitted in a way that meets energy, environmental and safety objectives," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in a statement.

Cape Wind has drawn fierce debate ever since it was proposed in 2001.

Originally, the 130-turbine, privately-run facility was slated to be built by 2005 in Horseshoe Shoals, a stretch of water about six miles from Hyannis and nine miles from Martha's Vineyard. Connected to the Northeast power grid by cables buried under the ocean floor, the facility would produce 468 megawatts, or about 75 percent of the electricity demand for all of Cape Cod, the Vineyard and Nantucket.

Environmentalists have been split on the plan, enticed by the prospect of green energy but wary of private firms profiting from a commercial enterprise housed in public waters.

Still, many national environmental groups are rallying behind the project.

"The Cape Wind facility shows we can repower America, and we can start today," said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This project opens the door to offshore wind development in the United States and is exactly the type of clean energy investment that will jumpstart our economy, create jobs and lead to energy security."

Glenn G. Wattley, the head of the alliance, said that in an attempt to get the long-running project finally off the ground, federal officials are running roughshod over some 20 state and local permit applications needed and disregarding environmental and safety concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

"It's like they're cramming this thing in before the Bush administration leaves town, before all of these issues are appropriately looked at," Wattley said.

Vernon Lang, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who works in the agency's Boston field office in Hartford, Conn., and worked on reports for the Cape Wind project, said that he was told in April that there was a "great deal of concern" about getting the wind farm approved ahead of a new administration coming in.

"They were concerned about opponents to the project continuing to hold it up," he said.

But two months later, in June after Lang had authored a report critical of the project's lack of planning for how to deal with Nantucket Sound's bird population, he was reassigned off of Cape Wind.

The Interior Department's inspector general, Earl Devaney, has been investigating whether Minerals Management Service officials have circumvented the normal permitting process for Cape Wind, sources close to the investigation said.

Today, an elated Jim Gordon, the president of Cape Wind Associates LLC, which is building the project, said Massachusetts was "one major step closer to becoming home to America's first offshore wind farm and becoming a global leader in the production of offshore renewable energy."

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind Associates, said the process "has taken too long and I think now the American public is fed up with inappropriate political influence," he said. "This is a process that's gone on for seven years and we've been held to a higher standard than most fossil fuel plants. It's time to start moving forward."

Rodgers added that Cape Wind officials were "very encouraged" by comments made by Obama today.

Wendy Williams, a journalist who lives in Cape Cod and authored the book, "Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for America's Energy Future on Nantucket Sound," called today's report a "very important step for a fight that has gone on almost eight years."

However, Williams said Cape Wind is far from a done deal, with Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) threatening to hold public hearings on the wind farm's potential impact on marine safety.

She also said most Cape Cod residents support the project, following a summer of high energy costs that hurt tourism.

"The general population is now saying, 'sure, let's build it,'" said Williams, noting that Cape Wind officials say the project would save New England households $25 million per year in energy costs.


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