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