Spitting into the Wind

Cape Wind Commentary
Rounding up the usual suspects

by Michael Vickerman

When the Cape Wind proposal came to light in the fall of 2001, almost everyone in the Massachusetts political establishment reacted as though the turbines themselves were radioactive. Democrats and Republicans alike backpedaled from this ambitious scheme and dove for cover faster than you can say Senator Larry Craig.

This may have been the only time in history that a sitting governor testified in person at an Army Corps of Engineers hearing.Only a handful of brave souls were willing to buck the prevailing political currents. One of them was Matt Patrick, the state representative from the affected area. With his background in energy conservation, Patrick understood that a large wind installation in Nantucket Sound could dramatically reduce emissions from the aging oil-fired generator that serves the Cape and Islands region.

From time to time Patrick would publicly urge his constituents to consider Cape Wind’s merits before leaping to negative conclusions. This tactic did not endear himself to the ultrarich project opponents who had formed the faux grassroots group Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Neither did a facetious essay he and his son composed that poked fun at his constituents’ reasons for opposing Cape Wind. Among them were:

• The wind turbines won’t match the color of the new drapes in the boathouse we just redecorated; and
• The turbulence from the wind wake caused by the stupid windmills will take the wind out of our sails.

This bit of cheek sent Alliance members reaching for their independent thought alarms and their wallets. In 2002 the group recruited Larry Wheatley, a relative unknown, to challenge Patrick and transform this electoral race into a referendum on the Cape Wind project. Flush with bundled contributions from Alliance members, the challenger came within 15 votes of unseating Patrick in what the authors of Cape Wind call “one of the most expensive state representative campaigns in Massachusetts history.”

Wheatley’s chief benefactor was Richard J. Egan, a wealthy contributor to the Republican Party, whose $13 million Cape Cod mansion commands a view of the water. Egan also helped engineer and finance Mitt Romney’s successful gubernatorial campaign that year. Romney repaid the favor by declaring his administration’s opposition to Cape Wind.

Romney’s desire to ingratiate himself with the Alliance reached its zenith in December 2004, when he appeared at a public hearing in Cape Cod to criticize the project. This may have been the only time in history that a sitting governor testified in person at an Army Corps of Engineers hearing.

In articulating his reasons for opposing Cape Wind, Romney gave little indication that he had read the draft Environmental Impact Statement. “I support renewable energy,“ the governor said. “I’ve seen wind farms. They are not pretty.” Romney added that although wind development might be acceptable in the Berkshire Mountains or elsewhere along the seacoast, it does not belong in “a national treasure” like Nantucket Sound.

Romney’s contribution to NIMBY rhetoric raises two important questions: one about his fitness for the presidency and the other about the definition of a national treasure. About the first, here is a governor who decided to let his opposition to Cape Wind define his administration’s energy policy. Either Romney was blind to the nation’s interest in displacing an imported fuel like bunker oil with locally produced renewable electricity—a benefit Cape Wind can deliver but a similar project in the Berkshires cannot—or else he was willing to sacrifice that environmental gain just to curry favor with his backers.

Whatever the explanation, Romney’s hostility toward Cape Wind, and his administration’s repeated attempts to kill the project, are the workings of a man who is manifestly unfit to lead a nation that has no choice but to cut back its consumption of energy and expand its use of renewables.

Pristine it is not; in fact, the Sound is a sewer

As for the “treasure” that is Nantucket Sound, suffice it to say that its popularity as a summertime pleasuring grounds, not to mention all the ferryboats and barges bearing fuel oil cruising off Cape Cod’s coast, is ample proof that while it may be beautiful, it is also a heavily used waterway. According to Richard Elrick, a ferryboat captain with 25 year’s experience, the ferryboats skimming the waters often discharge raw sewage into Nantucket Sound, which is perfectly legal if done at least three nautical miles from shore. Pristine it is not.

But there is one part of the sound that is relatively free from barges, ferryboats, yachts, and motorboats: a shallow zone called Horseshoe Shoal. With water depths ranging from two to 50 feet at mean tide, Horseshoe Shoal is hazardous to commercial shipping but accommodating to windpower development. It is certainly one of the best locations to situate a wind project anywhere along the Atlantic coast.

As the Cape Wind controversy spilled over into 2005, the Alliance came to the realization that the public relations tides were moving against them. For a while the opposition kept environmental groups out of the fray by deploying the one opponent with impeccable environmentalist credentials, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to decry the project’s presumed impacts on aquatic life as well as the recreational industry.

But when people who can afford summer homes on the seacoast, like the Kennedy family, begin equating the views out their living room windows with the splendor of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, the environmental argument recedes in the face of such obvious self-interest.

As the younger Kennedy’s credibility on this controversy melted away, the Alliance shifted gears and decided to engage its No. 1 political asset: Ted Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts. Senator Kennedy was no less hostile toward the Cape Wind proposal than his nephew—indeed, he has steadfastly refused to meet the developer, Jim Gordon. But initially, Kennedy was content to bide his time.

Stepping into the Cape Wind fracas was a politically ticklish matter for Sen. Kennedy, whose record on environmental protection was among the very best in Congress. He had earned the lasting gratitude of national environmental groups for organizing filibusters against energy bills that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas extraction. Becoming ensnared in an offshore wind controversy near his family’s vacation retreat was the last thing Kennedy needed so long as ANWR’s fate hung in the balance.

The omnibus energy legislation adopted in August 2005 was free and clear of any provisions authorizing drilling in that part of Alaska. With ANWR and energy security issues off the Congressional radar screen, the moment had come for Kennedy to engineer Cape Wind’s demise, one that would be carried out by others in Congress, leaving his own hands clean.

Phase 1 of Kennedy’s ambush came in the form of a U.S. Coast Guard authorization bill. The committee chairman, Alaska Representative Don Young, inserted an amendment prohibiting the placement of wind turbines within 1.5 miles of a ferry route. This provision was snuck in without any public hearing or discussion, and it was done presumably at Kennedy’s request. If it remained in the larger bill, the Cape Wind project would have been a goner.

With great urgency Gordon patched together a team of allies to organize a highly public campaign to save Cape Wind from death by Congressional knavery. Project defenders pounced on a Dear Colleague letter penned by Young that repeatedly singled out Cape Wind as a navigational hazard. No other projects were listed.

With this letter Gordon had proof that Young had cooked up a new national policy, which ostensibly would apply to all U.S. waters, to stop just one project: his. The press responded with editorials denouncing Young’s sneak attack, and the Coast Guard authorization foundered in a House-Senate conference committee.

No doubt the result of Kennedy’s behind-the-scenes prodding, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a member of that conference committee, took out Young’s language and substituted a new amendment which he described as a compromise. The new language prohibited the construction of an offshore windpower plant in Nantucket Sound if a governor of neighboring state (e.g., Massachusetts) opposes the project. With that language, all pretense of these machinations being anything other than a hit job on Cape Wind evaporated.

From Kennedy’s perspective, this new wrinkle was an improvement, because it would delegate the dirty work to Gov. Mitt Romney, whose opposition to Cape Wind was a matter of public record. But the counteroffensive waged by Gordon and his allies was finding traction in Congress. The heads of the Senate Energy Committee took offense at this unwarranted intrusion into their turf, which they considered a breach of courtesy. In a reference to President Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2006, Sen. Pete Domenici, the committee chair wrote, “It would be folly for us in Congress to talk about breaking our addiction to foreign oil and, at the same time, pass laws that stymie our own production of clean and renewable energies here at home.”

Greenpeace, a strong supporter of offshore wind development, ratcheted up the pressure. Its staff composed a television commercial featuring a cartoon version of Sen. Kennedy playing Whack-a-Mole on several wind turbines standing in the water. “I might see them from my mansion on the Cape,” the Kennedy look-a-like explained. With that commercial Greenpeace struck PR gold, because the advertisement snowballed into a news story that was aired repeatedly, so juicy was this new rift between the Kennedys and environmental groups.

Any honest appraisal of Kennedy’s senatorial career must take into account this grotesque display of senatorial pique.As the attacks from Gordon’s right-left coalition intensified, Sen. Kennedy and his co-conspirators ran out of maneuvering room. In June 2006 the amendment that held up the Coast Guard authorization bill for six months was dropped, and the bill sailed out of conference committee. But Kennedy couldn’t resist taking one last swipe at the project on the Senate floor. There he showed the world a side of him that conflicted with an image carefully cultivated over a senatorial career dating back to 1962.

Clearly oblivious to the contents of the Energy Policy Act adopted nine months earlier, the senator declared that Cape Wind would be “exempt from all the [environmental] protections.” That law, which Kennedy voted for, created a regulatory framework for permitting offshore windpower plants under the purview of the Mineral Management Service, which also has jurisdiction over offshore oil and gas operations. Where Kennedy’s whopper came from no one knows, but like most NIMBY utterances it was completely without foundation.

That the proposed Cape Wind installation managed to escape serious harm while stuck for six months in Kennedy’s clutches is a testament to Jim Gordon’s tenacity. Most people would have surrendered at the sight of all those Congressional daggers arrayed against him. But Gordon simply refused to knuckle under, and in the end it was Kennedy who conceded.

Any honest appraisal of Kennedy’s senatorial career must take into account this grotesque display of senatorial pique. By placing a higher priority on his own interests and those of his yachting buddies than on Cape Cod’s air quality and America’s energy future, Kennedy managed to fritter away, in one prolonged burst of pettiness, the conservationist credentials he had accumulated in his 44 years on Capitol Hill.
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Sources: Williams, Wendy and Whitcomb, Robert, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, 2007, Public Affairs, New York.

“Nantucket Sound - Beautiful but not Pristine,” Elrick, Richard; Sept. 4, 2007, Clean Power Now.

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