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Lessons from Cape wind

The American Wind Energy Association was in Boston last week to assist wind energy developers and advocates with how to build local support and address technical and wildlife issues as they attempt to site wind energy projects.

While the wind energy industry has made significant progress in a relatively short time, it would be wise to examine the siting process being used by Cape Wind Associates in its bid to construct 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. To date, the process is an abject lesson in how not to site an offshore wind energy project in the United States. Cape Wind stands in contrast to the process used by the Long Island Power Authority in building public support for a proposed offshore wind project off Jones Beach.

It is now approaching four years since Cape Wind filed for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to build the largest, most ambitious offshore wind energy project in the world. The proposal set off an immediate clash of competing uses on Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Fishermen, local chambers of commerce, ferry and aircraft operators, realtors, and most local and state elected officials weighed in against the project while the environmental community became increasingly fractured.

Initially, Cape Wind promoted the project nationally as the start of an offshore wind energy revolution in the United States. Soon afterward a multitude of other possible sites by other developers began to appear up and down the Eastern seaboard.

But in the past two weeks, the Cape Wind project is under threat by the very process it chose to pursue its permit: the Army Corps of Engineers Section 10 navigation permit review. Last year, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy emphatically concluded that the Army Corps does not have the authority to convey public property rights to Cape Wind or any other developer trying to build on the Outer Continental Shelf. In a recent court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals raised the same "thorny" issue, sending clear signals that the Corps cannot ignore the public's property interest in Nantucket Sound and that existing legal authority is insufficient for approval of Cape Wind and other large offshore wind projects.

The project has likewise suffered a backlash from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement review process that produced a 3,800-page DEIS that major participants in the process - including the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of the Interior and the Cape Cod Commission - found long in length but short in substance.

The DEIS, said many reviewers, lacks essential detail about alternatives, overstates air quality benefits, understates detrimental effects of the project such as potentially significant bird kill, and dismisses out of hand the real potential for air and marine navigation disasters.

The Cape Wind project might have come to symbolize the promise of offshore wind energy, but as wind power advocates gathered here this week, they had cause for concern that the Cape Wind project is taking them down a path toward continued conflict.

Cape Wind's strategy of siting its project in federal water just beyond the state's three-mile "leash" has, predictably, antagonized key state leaders and citizens who resent the taunting tone of Cape Wind's "try to stop me" strategy and the harm to state interests that may result from the project. There are at least two critical lessons from the Cape Wind process that are enlightening for wind developers and investors. First, the lack of a specific prohibition against offshore wind development in federal waters is, at best, a yellow light, not a green light. Cape Wind had a head start because of the gaping hole in federal policy, which it was quick to exploit. However, once the citizenry became aware and engaged on the drawbacks of the project, that early advantage evaporated.

The second lesson that emerges is that decades of environmental law and policy do matter and are extremely relevant. It is vital to start by establishing a program that defines standards for site selection and minimizes conflict and adverse impacts so that beneficial projects can be streamlined. Cape Wind's decision to build a massive offshore project in the middle of Nantucket Sound is essentially a lit fuse ready to blow.

The sheer size of the project, and the many public values with which it conflicts, guarantees an incessant, costly and counterproductive fight. That is not a promising start - or future - for the renewable energy movement.

If the offshore wind energy movement has a future, it will need to be in collaboration with communities and citizens. Castigating opponents as selfishly uninterested in saving the planet from global warming misses the point that degrading one environment to save another is not progress. It also misses the point that there is a better way to enhance the prospects for offshore wind energy, by first undertaking a programmatic review similar to what has been done in Europe for offshore wind and in the United States for onshore wind.

Such a process will make it possible to site offshore wind projects in locations that minimize conflict and protect national treasures like Nantucket Sound. As Cape Wind is discovering, one can't just say that offshore wind energy is worth all the public costs that come with it. It must be proven, and so far the record shows that just the opposite is the case.

Susan Nickerson is executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

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