United States

United States

Elitist nimbyism

While Europe celebrates the completed installation of the most ambitious offshore wind power station yet built, America has far grander plans. Astonishingly, however, proposals for a series of offshore wind stations off the coast of the United States Northeast are being torpedoed in a dirty-tricks campaign captained by political heavyweights: Senator Ted Kennedy, Representative William Delahunt, and presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry. A battle of significant proportions is now being fought over a 420 MW project proposed for a site off Cape Cod.

The United States is not a country to be left out of trail-blazing technology advances. While Europe this month celebrates the completed installation of the most ambitious offshore wind power station yet built (page 26), America has far grander plans for the ultimate in environmentally-friendly power production. Astonishingly, however, proposals for a series of offshore wind stations off the crowded coast of the United States Northeast are being torpedoed in a dirty-tricks campaign captained by some of the nation's most influential political heavyweights: Senator Ted Kennedy, Representative William Delahunt, and, to a lesser degree, presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry. All are Massachusetts Democrats and all, ironically enough, call themselves environmentalists. More to the point, what all three also have in common is a vested interest in protecting the scenic vistas of multi-million dollar seaside homes in the region.

A battle of significant proportions is now being fought over a 420 MW project proposed for a site off Cape Cod nearly a year ago (pages 41-46). On the one side is a group of America's elite-apparently convinced that their privileged life styles are under serious threat; on the other side, a building groundswell of popular support for America's first offshore wind farm, based on the growing realisation that a viable solution to America's dependence on polluting forms of energy supply can safely be placed close to major centres of population, but more or less out of sight.

History suggests that it will be this popular mandate for change that prevails over wealth, influence and a worrying level of ignorance. Indeed, the first skirmishes have already forced the so called "Alliance for the Protection of Nantucket Sound" to rethink its tactics. Its early claims to represent environmental interests quickly went bust when most of the nation's major environmental organisations came out in support of the project. A second claim to "grass roots" support was also quickly abandoned in the face of reality.

The Cape Cod war is far from over, however. Deep pockets have allowed the alliance to employ a league of lawyers to drown the federal agency responsible for permitting the offshore project in paperwork. Another tactic involves wielding the considerable political muscle of Kennedy's gang to issue behind-the-scenes warnings to federal officials that make clear the politicians' displeasure. The terrorising is coming from both the Democratic and Republican sides; elitism in search of privilege knows no political boundaries, it seems. Most recently, Delahunt even began calling for a complete moratorium on all offshore wind farms in US coastal waters. "This is our ocean, owned by the American people and not by commercial interests," he fiercely told a local paper, ignoring the fact that due democratic process is alive and well in New England-and protecting the interests of the majority despite his efforts.

All this at a time when the American people crave change. A year ago they watched terrorists destroy downtown New York City, a disaster wrought upon America partly because of its addiction to oil. Then they watched as much of the continent was parched by drought, while news flooded in of an awaiting ecological disaster from melting glaciers. A year after the Twin Towers disaster, a genuine nationwide grassroots effort has materialised out of the misery. Fuelled by both the left and the right, the desire for both carbon free energy and energy security has legitimised the search for clean, renewable energy in the United States.

But when the search for fossil-free energy meets up with the fossils running the US Congress, we meet with the ultimate NIMBYism: "If I can't keep it out of my own backyard, then I'll keep it out of all the national backyards."

A sad irony

That attitude might be understandable if offshore wind was an experimental technology. But wind turbines installed in groups at sea have operated for more than a decade in Europe and "offshore wind not oil" is actively supported by Greenpeace, as it is by most environmental lobbies. Clearly, environmental protection is not the prime motive. Most ironic of all, perhaps, is that the very American politicians who are opposing offshore wind farms are also opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This begs the question: where do they expect our energy to come from?

It was Massachusetts senator John Kerry who led the fight against drilling in ANWR. He is also an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration's lack of action on climate change. So far he has done his best to steer clear of the offshore wind controversy. But though he might be the "junior" senator in Massachusetts while Kennedy calls the shots, it could well be time to show some backbone. After all, if he cannot effect substantial change in his own home state at this propitious time, what are his chances of doing so across an entire nation, were he to become president?

Forty years ago, an American president ushered in his administration by telling voters: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." That was a Kennedy who followed his idealistic call for selflessness with courage and creativity. He delivered another message specifically to Massachusetts politicians: "For those to whom much is given, much is required."

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