Ill Wind

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is the most compelling reason yet to reconsider construction of an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

ILLUSTRATION BY EDEL RODRIGUEZ

IT WAS ONE OF THE SUMMER’S best-attended social gatherings on Martha’s Vineyard, and there was not a Lilly Pulitzer dress or a pair of Nantucket Reds in the room. No talk of the Edgartown Yacht Club’s annual ’Round the Island Race, nothing about who might host the vacationing Obamas for dinner.

It was late July, and guests came to Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury in jeans and T-shirts, toting three-bean salads, shellfish, and fresh vegetables, all the fixings for a potluck supper and memorial service to bid farewell to Tom “the Codfather” Osmers, a man whose life gave lie to the conventional wisdom about the kind of people who oppose the giant wind energy plant planned for Nantucket Sound.

For years opponents of the proposal to build 130 wind turbines across more than 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal have been mocked as wealthy second-home owners, people more interested in protecting their ocean views than in combating global warming. It’s a caricature that has been surprisingly effective, reducing anyone who questions the wisdom of erecting 440-foot towers in the path of birds, whales, and commercial fishing boats to a pampered elitist, indifferent to the environmental threat of fossil fuels so dramatically on display in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Tom Osmers was not a rich man. He was the West Tisbury shellfish constable, and more than anything, his life was about protecting his corner of the world. Last year Osmers and some of his colleagues — men and women whose ocean views
come off the decks of draggers and charter boats and fishing vessels — founded the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association.

In June the group filed a suit in federal court challenging the U.S. Interior Department’s April decision to approve Cape Wind, arguing that the project will destroy their livelihood. Far from being indifferent to the dangers on display in the gulf, the fishermen see the episode as a cautionary tale, one that’s as applicable to a wind farm as it is to deepwater oil drilling — and the most compelling reason yet to scuttle construction of Cape Wind. “When we look at what’s happening in the gulf, we see fishermen like us, out of work because they built first and worried about the consequences later,” says Michele Jones of the Fishermen’s Association. “Cape Wind says we have nothing to worry about. I’m sure that’s what BP said, too.”

THE DISASTER IN THE GULF IS nothing if not a reminder of the need for vigilant government oversight when it comes to fragile public resources. Technology has limits. Bold initiatives have consequences. Prevention is wiser and cheaper than remediation. Recent history is replete with the fallout from regulatory failures. A negligent Securities and Exchange Commission allowing Wall Street speculators to bring the financial system to the brink of collapse. A toothless Mine Safety and Health Administration issuing hundreds of citations for violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, but failing to shut it down until 29 miners died last April. A lax Food and Drug Administration approving drugs like Vioxx and Avandia, displaying more concern for the profits of pharmaceutical companies than the health of the public.

The fishermen who ply the waters of Horseshoe Shoal have long been skeptical about Cape Wind, and so should the rest of us. For almost a decade, the developer has dodged tough questions, massaged regulators with self-serving studies, and demonized critics. But asking questions of a private developer who wants millions in public subsidies to build and operate an energy plant in public waters is not a stealth attack on the national commitment to alternative energy. It’s due diligence, the kind not done in the gulf.

The developer of Cape Wind contends that the legal challenges to the project — there are three lawsuits pending in addition to the one filed by the Vineyard fishermen — are without merit because the proposal has undergone nine years of rigorous review by state and federal regulators.

But just how rigorous was that review?

The federal regulators who signed off on Cape Wind, the Minerals Management Service, are the same discredited bunch that signed off on the safety of deepwater oil drilling in the gulf. Just this year, the approval process the agency used for Cape Wind was criticized by the Interior Department’s own inspector general, who found the MMS review to have been “unnecessarily rushed.”

“While none of the [cooperating federal] agencies believed that MMS’s timeline affected the overall conclusions,” acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote in her report, “each agency expressed frustration at various levels that the timeline prevented them from being as thorough in their reviews as they would have desired.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard complained to the investigators that they were not given enough time to study biological and navigational impacts of Cape Wind. The Environmental Protection Agency protested that the MMS’s rush limited the ability to tap into the expertise of other federal agencies. The lawyer for the trade association that represents passenger ferries said he was “astounded” that the Coast Guard abandoned its usual review process to “acquiesce” to the developer, and speculated that the service branch would likely be held liable “if a catastrophic sea accident were to occur after construction of the project.”

When officials from three local airports and the two major ferry operators aired their concerns to the IG, Dennis Duffy, vice president of Cape Wind, countered that airport boards “are heavily politicized” in Massachusetts and that “political pressure has been intense for anyone who can throw up a roadblock” to the project.

Is that seriously the best Cape Wind can do to answer these legitimate public safety questions? Why should we accept a less-than-thorough review when a pristine environment and the livelihoods and safety of so many people hang in the balance?

“BIG TOMMY” OSMERS DID NOT HAVE an ocean view from the fisherman’s shack he called home. The front walls sagged and the kitchen roof leaked, but the place suited a man who had little use for material comforts. While he was undergoing treatment for the cancer that would take his life last March, island locals reinforced the walls and rebuilt the roof so Osmers, unmarried and without children, could be at home with his family of friends when he died.

Even when he was too sick to testify before government panels examining the Cape Wind plan, Osmers was researching the impact it would have on the squidders and conchers and bass fishermen trying to eke out a living on Nantucket Sound. Their boats’ movements would be restricted, limiting their haul. More crewmen would be needed, eroding their already slim profits.

In the words of the lawsuit that Osmers did not live to see filed: “The Cape Wind Energy Project will cause an effective closure of prime, historic fishing grounds on Horseshoe Shoal…particularly for the smallest fishing vessel operations….”

These public policy questions may be less entertaining than the class-warfare narrative peddled by Cape Wind Associates president Jim Gordon and his investors, but they are also more vital to Massachusetts. If an industrial-scale wind power plant is worth developing offshore, why not seek out competitive bids and alternative sites that avoid shipping lanes, busy commercial airspace, critical fisheries habitat, and the feeding and breeding grounds of threatened mammals and sea birds? Why reward one developer simply because he got there first, as if the Outer Continental Shelf were a homesteading site? If ratepayers are to be saddled with higher electric bills, why has Governor Deval Patrick not at least secured a commitment that the jobs produced by Cape Wind stay in Massachusetts?

European countries that have built wind farms did their research, establishing site standards and ocean zoning rules before embarking on projects that would permanently alter the seascape. The discredited MMS didn’t even come up with regulations for offshore renewable energy resources until April 2009. Cape Wind is the proverbial cart that came before the horse.

Now, with an arrogance that has typified its conduct for nearly a decade, Cape Wind wants the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to approve a contract with National Grid worth some $2.5 billion that calls for the utility to buy half the power Cape Wind generates over the next 15 years — without revealing the underlying financial data that would let us know whether the contract is a good deal.

By all appearances, it is not. Starting in 2013, National Grid would pay an initial price of 18.7 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by Cape Wind once the turbines start turning — roughly twice what National Grid pays other suppliers. And that price increases by 3.5 percent every year of the contract. It took the intervention of Attorney General Martha Coakley to get the initial price down from 20.7 cents a kilowatt-hour, potentially saving $450 million over 15 years.

While the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates the need for public and private investment in clean fuel technology, it does not mean suspending our critical judgment about the potential downsides of all sources of energy. We did that with deepwater drilling, dismissing the risk of a catastrophic blowout. We did that with nuclear power, building nuclear plants without first resolving how we would dispose of the dangerous waste they produce. We are doing it again with Cape Wind, rolling the dice that a newly reorganized Minerals Management Service will live up to its new name, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Given the recent history of federal regulation, there is little reason to think that it will.

  • John

    We don’t use oil to generate electricity to any meaningful extent so Cape Wind will precisely NOTHING to reduce oil consumption.

  • Joe

    Cheaper and more abundant electricity thru sources such as wind and nuclear would reduce the need to burn fuels such as home heating oil, natural gas and propane to heat homes and reduce coal burning and natural gas usage in electric production.

  • Jon

    The risks of (i.e. damage from) malfunction of an oil rig or a nuclear power plant are far greater than the potential damage from a wind farm malfunction, yet this author tries to equate the two. Why? Seems like the author is making giant leaps of logic in order to justify his case. What are the author’s real reasons for opposing Cape Wind?