Sometimes, to be a good environmentalist, you have to stop saving the earth for a decade or so and focus on fighting with other environmentalists. Herein lies the sad, sad story of Cape Wind.
In 2001, a Massachusetts entrepreneur named Jim Gordon had a grand idea to help the environment, help stop global warming, and maybe make some money in the process: A wind farm in Nantucket Sound, the body of water between Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
That Gordon ran into instant opposition on an environmental project in the early days of the Bush administration should not be surprising. But the opposition didn’t come from the Bush administration. It came from environmentalists. And some of them were mighty big environmentalists.
As CBS News anchor in the 1960s and 1970s, Walter Cronkite was “The Most Trusted Man in America”. From his retirement perch on Martha’s Vineyard, he told CNN in 2002 that the windmills more than fifteen miles away, barely visible on the clearest of days, would be an eyesore. “They're big, ugly things sitting out there in the middle of what should be the pristine waters.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. waded in as well, saying the wind farm, just six miles from Hyannisport and the Kennedy compound, could spell doom for Nantucket Sound. In the same CNN piece, he told reporter Mike Schulder, “It's going to injure a very, very valuable tourist industry. And it's going to destroy a resource, which is really part of the Commons. It's part of our nation's history. It's part of the maritime and nautical tradition of Massachusetts.”
Hmmm. The Most Trusted Man in America, and one of the nation’s most distinguished and dedicated environmentalists didn’t like what Jim Gordon was up to. But Gordon didn’t let that take the wind out of his proposed turbines. Work on the 130 windmills, generating about three-quarters of the electric needs of the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, would press ahead. (The Cape and Islands now get their power from a coal plant and a nuclear plant.)
Cronkite dropped his opposition to the project in 2003 after a meeting with Gordon. Robert Kennedy Jr. has been virtually silent on it for the past couple of years, but his employer, the Natural Resources Defense Council, is signed up as an endorser. Cape Wind navigated through a multi-year process of reviews, challenges, comment periods, hearings, impact statements, and permit applications with both the state and federal governments. The process is looking good for Cape Wind, but eight years after Jim Gordon rolled out his vision, the project is still on the drawing board. And the opponents may have lost some star power, but they’re not giving up.
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, tosses in the kitchen sink in opposing it: The wind farm, they say, will hurt marine mammals, fish, fishermen, ferries, migratory birds, and maybe even aircraft (they’re citing research that the turbines could affect radar). Powerful legislators, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, are still on record opposing the project. And President Obama’s nominee to run the Federal Aviation Administration, J. Randolph Babbitt, worked as a consultant for the Cape Wind opponents. As FAA boss, Babbitt could have a hand in any federal action on the radar issue, but he’s promised to recuse himself. The opponents have strongly hinted at more litigation, so the ending may not be in sight for Jim Gordon and Cape Wind.
(Note that the wind turbines won’t really be in sight, either. They’re almost six miles offshore from the closest land point. Cape Wind has posted some simulated images of what the wind farm will look like from land, and the towers barely peek above the horizon.)
Public opinion is swinging Cape Wind’s way, too.The Opinion Research Corporation has polled on behalf of the Civil Societies Institute, a Massachusetts think tank. Support for the project from Cape and Islands residents rose from 58% in 2007 to 74% last year; statewide, 86% of Massachusetts residents polled support the project, up from 84% the previous year.
The Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the area’s oldest and largest environmental group, just endorsed the Cape Wind proposal this month. Its board voted unanimously in favor, although a previous president quit the organization over the issue. The APCC isn’t completely convinced that Cape Wind won’t have some environmental impact. But President Susan Shephard pointed out that it’s a little arrogant to think that preserving Cape Cod can be separated from preserving the earth. The value and need for wind power outweighs any aesthetic loss or environmental risk.
So the sad story of Cape Wind may have a happy ending for Jim Gordon. But it’s still sad that it’s gone on for so long, with no result to date to show for it. Let’s hope there are more Jim Gordons out there. And let’s hope they’re not scared off by how difficult it is to do something positive.
Peter Dykstrais the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit.