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Shipyard the latest strategic brick -- Offshore chess at Cape Cod

Reopening of the Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts' economically depressed city of Quincy, just south of Boston, is the latest strategic move being considered by Cape Wind Associates in what has become an intricate chess match between the proponents and the opponents of a 170 turbine, 420 MW offshore wind farm proposed for the southern coast of Cape Cod. City officials have declared themselves delighted at the prospect.

"We Quincy officials think it has some possibilities. We would love to see the shipyards converted to a manufacturing facility that would supply these throughout the region and throughout the world, for additional products that would be manufactured in Quincy," says Joe Mannarino, director of Quincy 2000 Corp, the city's economic development organisation. Mannarino says he and others in the city do not know much about wind energy, but like what they have heard so far.

The wind farm's proposed location in Nantucket Sound is in a space that has been used for at least a century both by Cape Cod's draggermen, who depend on the shallow waters for their living, and on Cape Cod's wealthy upper class, who consider it their personal yachting area. The Kennedy family still sails there and currently Edward Kennedy, a powerful and influential Senator, would be able to see the turbines from his summer estate.

The plan has prompted Kennedy to introduce an amendment to the Senate energy bill requiring a two year study of offshore wind development before any further action is taken, potentially delaying all offshore projects in the US. Initially Massachusetts' second senator, Democrat John Kerry and the region's national House of Representatives member, Democrat William Delahunt, were reported as supporting Kennedy's amendment by the Cape Cod Times. Neither have done so publicly of late. Kerry, who has a strong environmental record, is rumoured to be a presidential hopeful in the next race. Both the Senate and House have passed versions of the energy bill, but conferences to iron out differences between the two are expected to drag on for months.

Political suicide

What looks like a change of heart by Kerry and Delahunt could well have been prompted by a closer look at the facts. The future of Quincy's shipyards and of Quincy's workingmen has long been a thorn in the side of Massachusetts politicos.

Quincy began life in the 17th century as a centre of New England shipbuilding. It was the primary source of jobs for the city's workers until the business was no longer viable because of high labour costs. If a turbine manufacturing facility -- with its strong taste of environmental beneficence -- were to take the place of the defunct shipbuilding industry, it would be political suicide to oppose wind farms in Massachusetts, a state where environmentalists and working people comprise two large and influential voting constituencies.

Once wind is accepted in Massachusetts, says state official Greg Watson, the five other New England states are quite likely to follow suit. Watson's job is to lure renewable energy companies into Massachusetts. He has relocated his offices from the Boston area to Main Street, Hyannis, just down the street from the offices of the group opposing the wind farm.

"We think there's been lots of misinformation put out to the people of Cape Cod about what wind farms would bring. We wanted to be down here," he said, "so that we can help improve the information dissemination process." Executives from several wind companies have told Watson they hesitate to consider developing wind in Massachusetts because of the extremely negative reception of the offshore wind plant proposal by some Cape Cod groups and businesses. The small local paper The Cape Cod Times has written scathing editorials about wind energy.

In response the region's three major papers -- the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Providence Journal -- have all written editorials in support. Most people in the region, the editorials said, want to know the facts and if the environmental impacts are not severe would probably like to see the wind facility move ahead.

The latest chess move on the part of the opposition group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, has been to hire two heavyweight executives to run the opposition campaign: Doug Yearley, an ardent environmentalist and former boss of Phelps Dodge Corporation, and Steven Drew, general counsel for Carruth Associates LLC and CEO of Westship World Yachts LLC in Florida.

Because of the amount of money involved, the political consequences that could occur and the level of national talent that has been drawn into this battle, many observers are beginning to say the outcome could have a strong influence nationwide on the future of wind energy in the United States.

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