Tilting at offshore windmills

How Massachusetts's Cape Wind project got hijacked.

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America's flagship offshore wind project – the 130-turbine, 468-megawatt Cape Wind development – has once again become mired in delay.

First proposed in 2001 for the famous yachting waters of Nantucket Sound south of Cape Cod, the ambitious Massachusetts endeavor would help stabilize New England's aging power grid and ease Cape Cod's severe air pollution by reducing the use of the local oil-fired generator. It would also lower New England electricity rates.

Sadly, New England does not enjoy such benefits, largely due to the Cape Wind controversy. Airtricity, a major Irish wind energy company, intended to base its US operations in Boston. After watching the Cape Wind battle, the company moved to Chicago.

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The stalled project is a loss for New England and a setback for wind-power proponents across the country. It's also a victory for the powerful people who aligned themselves against it. Many factors fueled their personal attacks and endless litigation, but their opposition boils down to social narcissism.

Cape Wind, however, is not just a petty neighborhood squabble driven by NIMBY, or "not in my backyard!" syndrome. In a world of global warming, war in the Middle East, soaring gas prices, and declining fossil fuels, the campaign against Cape Wind is a sad commentary on the state of democracy and public policy in America.

I have watched this drama unfold for nearly six years. The desperation, indignation, exaggeration, and imagination of the critics is astounding. Among the project's opponents is a socialite named Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, widow of the philanthropist Paul Mellon. "You're a traitor to your class!" Mrs. Mellon replied to a lawyer who supported Cape Wind.

Particularly effective has been the meddling of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat. For years, the duo did everything possible to hold up Cape Wind. In one case, when a frustrated state employee, who served at the pleasure of the governor, spoke publicly about the unprecedented stalling, she found herself out of a long-held job.

I have sat through thousands of hours of meetings, including a Saturday morning "emergency" session held in the summer of 2002 in a century-old Nantucket Sound ballroom by the fabled and ultra-WASP Wianno Yacht Club.

At that meeting, Doug Yearley, a board member of the Marathon Oil Corporation, told attendees they'd have to shore up their anti-wind arguments. "I've been through enough of these to know that wealthy people who are worried about [scenic] views" will not be listened to, he said. "We cannot afford to be complacent."

Since then, this privileged crowd has certainly been anything but complacent. The first objection to the project to find its way into print made the boating connection clear. "This is one of the premier yachting areas in the world and they're going to turn it into an obstacle course?" complained a local official to The Boston Globe.

Mr. Yearley promised to press "environmental" concerns about offshore wind to get the public's attention. Then followed an onslaught of grossly emotive and highly inaccurate claims. Jaci Barton of the Barnstable Land Trust wrote that Cape Wind could turn a migratory path for a half-million birds into a "killing field," calling to mind the dreadful Pol Pot era. European biologists who have studied the technology for a decade say offshore wind is generally environmentally benign, perhaps even more so than land-based wind power.

The Wianno Club meeting raised about $4 million. By now, opponents have spent more than $15 million – mostly on lobbying, legal fees, and public relations. They have funded no substantive scientific research.

Under Massachusetts' new governor, Democrat Deval Patrick, Cape Wind has just received a clean bill of health. Permits will likely follow soon. Federally, however, the process is stalled. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the oversight agency, has repeatedly pushed back its hearing schedule.

MMS fears the inevitable lawsuits. Opponents have filed at least 20 project-related lawsuits and other actions. Some of these exhibit an extremely impressive imagination. These suits have ultimately failed – but that's not the point. The point is to create a high-stakes game of chicken and see who blinks first. "Endless litigation – nothing will get done!" threatened Rep. Bill Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts in a December 2004 public hearing.

The Cape Wind battle matters to the whole world. We must encourage the development of new technologies and begin to revamp the world's energy infrastructure.

We need a serious and responsible conversation about the future of energy in America. As we have it, we cannot allow the public discussion to be hijacked by those with hidden agendas. There's simply too much at stake.

Science writer Wendy Williams is co-author, with Robert Whitcomb, of "Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound."

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