Cape Wind project faces lengthier permitting review

Six months to a year added to process

By Jack Coleman

Good news and bad news for the company seeking to build an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.

The good news is that Minerals Management Service (MMS), the US Department of the Interior agency overseeing federal scrutiny of Cape Wind Associates's proposal, has established a clear timetable for permitting the project.


A view of an offshore wind farm in Denmark, similar to the Cape Wind proposal for Nantucket Sound, taken during the Clean Power Now group's trip to Denmark last May. Photo courtesy of Clean Power Now.

The bad news is that the timetable adds another six months to a year before Cape Wind could receive a permit.

As things now stand, a supplemental draft environmental impact report will be released in May, additional public hearings will be held next summer, a final environmental impact report will be issued in the fall and a permitting decision announced in January 2007.

With passage of the energy bill in Congress last summer, federal jurisdiction of offshore renewable energy projects passed from the US Army Corps of Engineers to MMS, which also has authority over offshore oil and gas facilities.

Prior to the bill becoming law, and three months after the Corps released a draft environmental impact report (DEIS) on the project, the Interior Department called on the Corps to release a supplemental report, citing perceived omissions and shortcomings in the original document.

The supplemental DEIS will include all of the information gathered for the initial report, plus additional information sought by MMS.

This includes further data on construction of the project's 130 turbines and emissions from vessels involved in construction. If built, the Cape Wind project would be the first offshore wind farm in the US. Other projects have also been proposed for the waters off New York, Georgia and, most recently, Texas.

Cape Wind's 417-foot tall turbines would be situated in a grid pattern across 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal, in the middle of Nantucket Sound.

In the course of a year, the turbines would generate nearly three-quarters of the electricity used on the Cape and islands, according to information provided by NStar during a series of public forums held in 2002 and 2003 by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

At full capacity, the 468-megawatt wind farm would generate just over twice the average local demand and the additional electricity would go off-Cape on the regional grid.

"Every day that this project is delayed, it delays important energy and environmental benefits to our region, and it drives us further behind the European nations who are poised to capture a major portion of the industry if this country doesn't get moving,"
- Cape Wind's Jim Gordon

Cape Wind CEO Jim Gordon said he was disappointed by the delay in a permitting process that began in November 2001 and extends to 17 federal, state and regional agencies. "But I have to put that disappointment aside because I believe that this project is important to our energy future," Gordon said. "We want the Cape and islands and southeastern New England to become a leader in offshore renewable energy."

"Every day that this project is delayed, it delays important energy and environmental benefits to our region and it drives us further behind the European nations who are poised to capture a major portion of the industry if this country doesn't get moving," Gordon said.

"This federal agency has laid down a schedule and I believe they want to work as expeditiously as possible to get a final decision and we will cooperate in every way we can to help them get there," Gordon said.

Ernie Corrigan, spokesman for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the main opposition group to Cape Wind, said he did not interpret the MMS timeline as a delay.

"It's really hard to say this because nothing like this has been done before," Corrigan said. "Jim Gordon initiated a process never before done in this country. The challenge that he's faced is that there is no prescribed process."

"For another agency to step into the process at this point," Corrigan said, "the only credible thing to do is to stop and say, 'we've got to look at this with a fresh set of eyes.' "

The Alliance has long maintained that the Army Corps of Engineers is ill-suited to review a pioneer project of this magnitude.

Specific issues that need additional scrutiny in the new review process, Corrigan said, are impacts to fisheries, the potential for an oil spill from a 40,000-gallon electrical service platform within the project's footprint and navigational hazards.

Cape Wind's opponents also maintain that not enough has been done to determine potential harm to native and migratory birds from the project.

Matthew Palmer, executive director of Clean Power Now, an advocacy group in favor of the Cape Wind proposal, said the MMS oversight establishes a clear timeline for completion of the project. "We're glad that there is a timeline now and we intend to watch very closely to see that the agency sticks to that timeline," Palmer said.

Gordon estimated that Cape Wind has spent nearly $24 million on the project and the delay will add $1 million to the cost.
"Our company is very concerned about potential energy shortages in natural gas and electricity," Gordon said, after several years of steeply rising fuel costs.  "There could be not only economic impacts, but public safety ramifications."

Gordon cited an Oct. 20 report from ISO New England, the non-profit corporation that manages the regional grid, stating that "as soon as 2008, the region will need additional electrical generation capacity or greater participation in demand reduction programs to ensure reliability during periods of peak demand."

Concern over possible rolling blackouts this winter prompted Gov. Mitt Romney last month to recommend easing emissions standards at oil- and natural gas-burning power plants.
 

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