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Next chapter in the Cape wind saga

The mammoth public consultation exercise into the proposal for a 468 MW offshore wind plan in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod is about to start. The issues open for public comment are myriad, from global warming and navigation markings to national energy policy and weaning the United States off foreign fuel

The long-debated Cape Cod offshore wind project is about to enter a new phase in its complex regulatory process. Later this month or in early September, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) expects to release a major public document which has been more than two years in development. "The Environmental Impact Statement is a compilation of all essential data in one place gathered to date. It's used to make an informed decision about a project, not only by the federal government but by all other American agencies and citizens affected by this project," says Larry Rosenberg from the New England area of USACE.

For more than a century, under a variety of official names, this agency has been responsible, under a 19th century law, for permitting, overseeing and at times building whatever structures may be approved for both American coastal waters and the nation's freshwater lakes and rivers. Other laws have added to and clarified these responsibilities, most notably the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act from the early 1970s.

In accordance with these laws, before any decision can be made regarding any large waterways project in the United States, an environmental assessment must be conducted under the authority of the National Environmental Policy Act. Often that means a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a cost that most land-based wind projects do not have to take on board.

An EIS "is a complete encyclopaedia of all the data collected to date that will be used in the decision-making process," Rosenberg explains. "A complete EIS must look at alternative sites on water and land, the purpose of the project, the need for the power, the social impacts, impacts on the environment, on bird migration, on navigation, on energy security, and much more. It will also talk about aesthetics, which is also very important."

The first stage of this mammoth undertaking is the completion of a draft version, which must be made available to the public for study and comment. The draft version of the Cape Wind document, expected to be more than 1000 pages, will be available on the USACE web site. In the case of Cape Wind, an official public comment period of at least 45 days will follow. But, adds Rosenberg, USACE will continue to listen to concerns throughout the whole of the process, until the final EIS is released. "If in six months someone identifies a concern then that information will be included in the process," he says.

In some cases, development of a final EIS takes only months after the public perusal process has started. But in the case of Cape Wind, which has been at the centre of a three-year public relations storm, most observers expect the process to take at least a year, possibly much longer. "We expect to hear from variety of environmental groups, elected officials, various governmental agencies, non-governmental organisations, literally hundreds of environmental advocacy organisations," says Rosenberg. "We'll hear from neighbourhood advocacy organisations who say they are offended by this project, business groups, animals rights organisations, energy productions firms, the New England grid..." The issues are myriad, he adds. "They start with renewable energy, global warming, private development, navigation, national energy policies, environmental justice, reducing reliance on foreign fuels, the yachting and recreational boating people."

Almost three years ago, power plant developer Jim Gordon, of Boston firm Energy Management Inc, proposed a wind project for the shallow water known as Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound, just south of Cape Cod. The proposal has gone through several reconfigurations, but as it currently stands, Gordon would like to build 130 turbines that will generate 468 MW using wind turbines from General Energy (GE).

The winds in Nantucket Sound are some of the best on the East Coast, making it a favourite wind surfing destination -- and the relatively shallow waters on Horseshoe Shoal in the middle of the sound make it a viable site for wind plant operation.

Wealth induced rage

But Gordon, perhaps naively, failed to anticipate the level of rage his Cape Wind proposal would produce among certain very wealthy homeowners in the vicinity. Although Cape Codders are by no means wealthy as a whole, those who live on the southern shoreline pay millions of dollars for their massive private homes, many of which are double or triple the size of the average Cape house and are used only part of each year.

Indeed, even before the Cape Wind proposal, the residents of Osterville had become something of a national joke because of their vanity. Long ago Paul Theroux, a travel writer known for his sharp tongue, once wrote scathingly about the dollar-based egotism that runs rampant in Osterville. This well-connected elite includes Richard J Egan, a major supporter of the Bush administration, former US ambassador to Ireland and one of the wealthiest men in America and Douglas Yearley, a man who has led the opposition to the wind project by bragging about politicians he controls and about the number of years he intends to hold the project up in court.

Lies and deceptions

Gordon has doggedly held on, weathering a campaign against the Cape Cod project that has employed nearly every dirty-trick in the book, legal or not. Now, at long last, his project may be headed for success. Over the summer the well-heeled opponents experienced a series of legal defeats in minor suits they had filed against Cape Wind. In addition, employees of their organisation, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, have been called to give depositions regarding at least one admission of fraud.

In those depositions, employees admitted to a series of lies and deceptions, including writing fake letters signed by non-existent people which the local newspaper, the Cape Cod Times, then printed on its letters page. In addition they made phone calls to local radio call-in shows and used fake names. Former Alliance director Isaac Rosen said he knew about at least some of these deceptions, but did not think they were important.

Security of supply

Meantime, Gordon has scored both regulatory and political victories. A US Department of Energy (DOE) white paper developed for the region's electric grid managers mentions the Cape Wind proposal as part of the solution to more secure and more diverse electricity supplies. "The report concludes that New England is over-reliant on natural gas," says Cape Wind's Mark Rogers. "It said that greater energy diversity is needed for greater system reliability and cost control.

The report analyses three days in January during which temperatures plummeted to record lows. At the worst point in the crisis, the regional grid operator announced an inability to keep up with demand. "We came close to a rolling blackout warning," says Rogers. "The DOE white paper noted that during that three day period Cape Wind's scientific data tower was reporting very strong winds and that had Cape Wind been operating, it would have been near peak production. That would have had a regional significance."

The DOE paper is only one of a growing list of decisions and documents that point toward the need for a favourable decision for the Cape Cod wind farm. This summer the staff of the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board gave their approval. And in late July, the New England grid managers told Massachusetts legislators that the state will need major new generation facilities by 2007. Since the state is politically committed to building emission-free generation, most people believe the most likely source of new generation in the immediate future will be wind power.

A stubborn man

All this has made Gordon sound like he's ten years younger. He is nothing if not a stubborn man. By now he has spent more than $15 million on the Cape Wind proposal. A defeat would be both a serious business blow and a political blow to the wind industry in New England. It is unlikely that many other entrepreneurs would be willing to commit that kind of money in such a deep-rooted political struggle of wills.

What might be most personally gratifying to Gordon is the emergence of a genuine grassroots movement formed in his defence. About two years ago Cape Codder Bill Eddy, an Episcopal priest long interested in wind power, felt that people who supported Gordon had not been given a voice. Eddy formed a group called Clean Power Now. CPN is an unabashed supporter of the Cape Wind proposal and has raised well over $100,000, much of it from one donor who, the group says, wishes to remain anonymous. CPN claims 2600 members and has three separate chapters -- Cape Cod, Southeastern Massachusetts and Boston -- and fully intends to become a nationwide advocacy group.

Clean Power Now

In late July, the group appointed its first executive director, Matthew Palmer. He says his first job as CPN head will be to participate as fully as possible during the comment period for the Cape Wind EIS.

"This will be important, because it's really the public's only opportunity to participate directly in the Cape Wind permitting process," he says. "We're going to try to organise our membership to turn out and to educate our members as to what's in that document so they can speak wisely to the Corps."

Palmer says his group is interested in much more than just wind energy. "We need electric power, and we need to get smarter about how we use it and about how we produce it," he says. "We hope to work collaboratively with similarly minded folks to set up mutual goals. In our name we've included the word Now to demonstrate the sense of urgency about this. We need to develop renewable energy to wean the United States off fossil fuel, particularly off imported oil."

Palmer, 40, is a mechanical engineer who has been employed in the generation and use of electric power for his entire career, including a three year stint at a waste-to-energy generation facility. He worked for a time for Gordon's Energy Management Inc (EMI), but insists the connection has nothing to do with his current interest. "I have no continuing ties of any type to EMI or to Cape Wind," Palmer says. "Clean Power Now never had any ties with Cape Wind. We receive and will accept no financial or material help from Cape Wind or any other developer."

Some project opponents have accused Gordon of financing the organisation. "Absolutely not one penny" has gone from Cape Wind to Clean Power Now replies Gordon. "I've provided them with updates on the Cape Wind project from time to time. That's it."

Gordon says he's looking forward to beginning the new stage of his project's development. It appears as though most people in Massachusetts support the project. What's more, a large number of voters on Cape Cod either support the project or are waiting to hear the scientific debates that will start with the release of the draft EIS before making up their minds.

The Kennedy line

Standing in the way of the project, however, are an array of politicians who are toeing the line in the sand drawn by Ted Kennedy, undeniably the most powerful politician in the state of Massachusetts. Included in the opposition are many local elected officials and some state elected officials. Only one local elected Democratic official, Matt Patrick, has had the courage to oppose Kennedy and to speak in support of the project. At recent campaign fund-raisers, many nationally known Democratic leaders have appeared, but none who are beholden to Kennedy.

Republicans have also given Patrick a hard time. The Cape Wind project is vehemently opposed by Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who does not have to worry about Kennedy as much as he has to worry about re-election funds from radical right-wingers like Egan and Yearley. Romney has supported the candidacy of Larry Wheatley, who suffered much ridicule after Patrick's successful re-election two years ago when he contested Patrick's election all the way to the state's Supreme Court.

Wheatley, a former military man who is campaigning on the radical right's anti-abortion platform, is an unlikely candidate who has gleaned much financial support due to his willingness also to oppose the Cape Wind proposal.

Gordon insists that this impressive political armament does not phase him. "I've always been optimistic about this project or I wouldn't have invested so much time and so many resources," he says. "I feel in my heart that this project is the right project in the right place at the right time. It is just tailor-made for the environmental challenges that Cape Cod and the islands are facing today. Cape Cod has the worst air quality in Massachusetts. It has water quality and water supply issues looming. It has no waste disposal infrastructure. And here's a project that produces seventy-five percent of the Cape and islands' electricity with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge."

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