A last minute amendment to an appropriations bill in the U.S. House of Representatives could sink plans for the nation’s first offshore wind farm. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Bob Whitcomb, editorial page editor for the Providence Journal.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
For supporters of offshore wind power, there’s an ill wind blowing out of Alaska. The state’s Congressman Don Young, the powerful Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has tagged an amendment onto an appropriations bill for the Coast Guard. The last minute amendment – with no Congressional debate – could sink plans for Cape Wind, that’s the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm that developers want to put in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Cape Wind has been five years in the making, and it’s proposed 130 turbines could produce three quarters of the region’s electric power, without generating greenhouse gases. Joining me to talk about this latest chapter in the Cape Wind saga is Bob Whitcomb, he’s editor of the editorial page of Rhode Island’s Providence Journal. He’s also working on a book about the Cape controversy.
Bob, hi there!
WHITCOMB: Hello, Bruce, how are you?
GELLERMAN: I’m well, thank you. Let me ask you about this amendment to the Coast Guard bill. What specifically does this bill do?
WHITCOMB: Well, what this bill would do is bar these offshore windmill projects from within a mile and a half of shipping channels. At least the expressed fear is there might be collisions, but this is very odd because current Coast Guard rules allow shipping within 500 feet of oil and, I believe, gas drilling platforms. So it seems to be that this provision, this amendment, is specifically aimed at getting rid of Cape Wind, because if it were to be followed, the backers of Cape Wind say that the project would not be economically viable.
GELLERMAN: Well, what evidence does the congressman have to buttress his argument?
WHITCOMB: None that we really know of. There were some concerns expressed in England by the British Ministry of Defense, and I suppose you could argue that, perhaps, some boat’s radar might be affected by the wind turbines. That seems to have been overtaken by developments. Apparently you can adjust the software in such a way as to pretty much eliminate that problem. And there are wind turbines, big collections of them in, for example, Denmark, virtually on Copenhagen Harbor. There’s a big new wind farm off Ireland, many plan for other parts of northwest Europe. Nobody…it doesn’t seem to be a big concern over there.
GELLERMAN: You mention Denmark. Their limit is a quarter of a mile.
WHITCOMB: Yeah. Every country, of course, has slightly different regulations but they’re very close. But it’s actually much more difficult to do a lot of these things in the United States than it is in Europe. The central government by fiat can’t order these things built in the same way that, for example, Denmark they can be. Denmark made a determination thirty years ago not to have nuclear and to pursue other forms of alternate energy, and the central government, or a council thereof, pretty much orders where these things are gonna go. It’s much more difficult to do that in the U.S. We’ve got many more layers.
GELLERMAN: Why would a congressman from Alaska be interested in something that’s happening in Massachusetts?
WHITCOMB: Well,, there are many speculations about this. Perhaps it’s just a completely sincere concern about navigation safety…that’s one theory. Another theory is that Mr. Young is an old friend of a fellow called Guy Martin, who’s a well-known lobbyist in Washington. And many years ago, Guy Martin helped Mr. Young get the Alaska pipeline project going. A lot of money’s been spread around.
To be fair, the pro-windmill crowd has spent a lot of money, too. Not on lobbying but perhaps half as much as the anti- crowd. We may never know. It’s like many of the characters in this case; you don’t really know why they’re doing what they’re doing, even though there’s plenty of field for speculation.
GELLERMAN: Well, I tried to call Congressman Young’s office a number of times to speak with him and never got a return phone call.
WHITCOMB: Well, that follows this whole case where the people who’ve been most, I think, successful in blocking this project, whatever you think of it, have been the most secretive. Senator John Warner. Probably the most famous, famously, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has a family compound at Hyannisport that would overlook the infamous wind farm. And he has been working assiduously for years to block this thing, but does not come out in the open and talk about it.
GELLERMAN: What about Senator Warner?
WHITCOMB: Senator Warner has two daughters in Osterville, or rather summer places in Osterville, which is sort of the ground zero of the opposition to this wind park. Very, very rich town. Many of the people there – not everybody, because there are supporters of the wind farm in Osterville and other rich areas on the south side of the Cape – many of the people there don’t like the wind farm idea. They don’t want to look at these windmills and they fear that their boating may be affected by it.
There are other people, such as in the marina business, real estate people and so on, they think it will hurt business, so they have more direct economic concerns. And I think at the beginning – not so much now – even some sincere environmentalists who thought that these turbines would throw off the ecology of Nantucket Sound. But most of those concerns have been pretty much eliminated by review.
GELLERMAN: When I think of Senator Kennedy I think of, you know, a senator who’s pretty green.
WHITCOMB: Yeah, you think so. I think he simply is like a lot of us – we love the idea, you know, alternate energy’s a great thing. All the people, virtually all the people opposing this wind farm, say that alternate energy in general, and wind farms in particular, are great things – just, you know, they just don’t want them near them.
GELLERMAN: I was reading that Senator Kerry, who’s from Massachusetts, of course –
WHITCOMB: Yes, that’s right, and who has – rather, his wife – has a big summer place in Nantucket…..
GELLERMAN: But he’s come out – at least if not against or for the wind turbines – has come out against the Young amendment pretty strongly.
WHITCOMB: Yes, very strongly. And, in fact, it’s interesting, a large number of people have, and if this thing does make it out of the House of Representatives – which is far from assured – it’s unlikely it would get through the Senate because there’s been a lot of outrage expressed. Not so much about whether windmills are good or bad, or whether this particular project is good or bad, but the way that this amendment was sort of snuck in at night. Which is very much reminiscent of the way Senator Warner tried to kill the project in late 2004 with a bunch of amendments. My hunch at this point is that this thing won’t go through because there’s been too much sunlight on it.
GELLERMAN: And that means that the Cape Wind plan can go ahead?
WHITCOMB: Well, no. This project has been kind of a Kafka-esque, Orwellian – I think there’s 17 agencies or something it had to go through. There’s over 4,000 pages of reports on this thing and it’s still not over. The most important thing is an obscure federal agency called the Minerals Management Service that oversees, among other things, oil and gas drilling; they have to clear it. And I think that’s expected by, oh, the end of this year, maybe the beginning of next. And that would probably be pretty much the final song.
GELLERMAN: How does this affect, or bode for, other offshore wind turbine farms?
WHITCOMB: Well, I think if they’re able to kill this obviously they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty getting financing, at least for a big project. I think we’ll see smaller projects around. The big problem is to get financing and to make putting these projects up attractive to developers. And if this thing gets shot down because it’s big and close to powerful, rich, influential people, it will certainly discourage a good number of people, I think, from entering the industry.
GELLERMAN: Now, Bob, you’re the editor of the editorial page of the ProJo. What’s the ProJo’s position on this?
WHITCOMB: Well, we favor this. We favored this project from close to the beginning. We realize that no project is perfect, and I think we’ve asked did it have to be this big? And now we think it probably does have to be this big to be financially viable. But we have run all sides. I think the thing that got us most intrigued in this was not so much the proposal itself as the various methods by which a comparatively small group of people tried to stop it. I think that probably drove us in more than the environmental or the energy issue itself.
GELLERMAN: Well, it’s certainly a great topic for an editorial page editor.
WHITCOMB: I guess so. I think the movie might be better.
GELLERMAN: What might you call it if it was a movie?
WHITCOMB: Oh, boy. Well certainly not “Gone with the Wind,” we’ve done all that. “The Winds of War,” maybe. That’s been done. Or “The War of Winds.”
GELLERMAN: Well, Bob, thank you very much.
WHITCOMB: I enjoyed it very much, thanks for having me.
GELLERMAN: Bob Whitcomb is the editor of the editorial page of the Providence Journal.
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