President Obama's energy policy has been a pretty tough slog. His $36 billion proposal for nuclear power plant construction took heat from both environmentalists and conservatives. Ditto his decision to open coastal areas for offshore oil drilling.
We are about to learn if there's lift beneath a crucial third pillar of the president's plan: wind power. Safer and more eco-friendly than nuclear plants and offshore drilling, wind turbines might seem to be an easy political sell. But at the end of 2009, wind power accounted for a mere 1.9% of the electricity production in the United States, and the vast majority of wind turbines are onshore.
Now, the uphill battle for energy reform has reached a turning point with the impending administration ruling on Massachusetts' long-delayed Cape Wind project, the nation's largest proposed offshore wind farm and a primer on what can go wrong with the politics of wind energy.
The Boston developer who has sunk millions into a proposed 130-turbine farm on shallow shoals of Nantucket Sound claims it will offset 75 percent of the gas and coal-based electricity use on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. Polls show the project has broad public support. Nonetheless, nine years after its initial proposal, progress on Cape Wind is stalled. A ruling that could break the stalemate is expected in the coming weeks from Interior Sec. Ken Salazar. And the administration's willingness to use the same muscle it's been flexing on health care and education reform could have political ramifications well beyond Cape Cod.
The politics of Cape Wind extend far beyond environmental issues, in part because the project's green credentials have survived all assault. Early claims of irrevocable damage to wildlife habitats were refuted in 2006 by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which deemed Cape Wind a minimal risk to the delicate ecology of Nantucket Sound.
Economic complaints fared no better. Multiple reports by the U.S. Minerals Management Service found Cape Wind would have a negligible effect on oceanography, commercial fisheries and tourism. But those failures haven't stopped Cape Wind's opponents. Salazar's final deliberations have included an eleventh-hour claim by a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoags, who say the wind farm violates historic preservation laws by impeding on sunrise views and desecrating burial grounds.
This part of the Cape Wind story can be seen as good news for wind energy's future. Rulings in the case have set important precedents for future research, planning, and construction of wind turbines. And the Wampanoag roadblock may be more the exception than the rule. The Economist noted recently that some Native American tribes have sought out investments in wind farms on tribal lands, anticipating significant local development.
But the underlying political principles of the anti-Cape Wind movement speak to tougher challenges facing Obama's energy agenda, starting with NIMBY.
The American Wind Energy Association says opposition to wind power arises most commonly when "some people perceive that the development will spoil the view that they are used to," and Cape Wind is exhibit A. "The right project in the wrong place," sums up the view of key Cape Wind opponents, most notably, members of the Kennedy family, whose famous Hyannisport compound overlooks Nantucket Sound. The late Senator Edward Kennedy twice nearly killed the project with legislative sleight-of-hand. Eco-activist Robert Kennedy Jr. has railed against the wind farm, rationalizing his logic in a strained op-ed in the New York Times.
The fallout from this project transcends just a few powerful opponents. Waves of litigation surrounding Cape Wind have prompted some wind farm developers to seek plots farther offshore and in deeper waters. The need to address visual-impact complaints adds to the technical complexity and cost of offshore wind power, potentially deterring large-scale investment. As Karen Ferenbacher puts it on the website earth2tech, the litigation surrounding Cape Wind is "representative of how NIMBY-ism and political interests can crush clean power projects."
While Americans were reminded after Scott Brown's surprise Senate victory exactly how complex the politics of Massachusetts can be, the long struggle of Cape Wind underscores how opposition to wind power, apart from state-by-state preservation issues, will come down to local preferences and the concerns of citizens, rather than major policy points.
If the future of offshore wind farming looks like the Cape Wind story, efforts to expand the industry through national policymaking seem headed for guerilla warfare at the local level. And obstacles to offshore wind farms at the local level provide fodder for opposition to Obama's national energy reform package. Wind energy sounds fantastic on the national level, but no number of tax credits, economic incentives, and inspirational speeches touted by President Obama can trump local concerns over the erosion of majestic scenery or a much-loved vacation spot. Local NIMBY-ism, while a marginal issue in the grand scheme of national public policy, lends itself to influence from outside interests. Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones outlined the role of William Koch -- president of the Oxbow Group, where he "made his fortune off mining and marketing coal, natural gas, petroleum, and petroleum coke products," and Cape Cod property-owner -- in bankrolling the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the major Cape Wind opposition group. It's a clinic on how a handful of well-placed local interests can undermine a national wind power initiative
This is the danger for the Obama administration: a local failure may sow the seeds for a national one. As we've seen in the healthcare debate, a handful of politicians could be enough to grind policy work to a halt. After all, if wind power can be stymied in one of the nation's most liberal states, where can it succeed?
In a recent interview with David Roberts of Grist.com, former Special Advisor on Green Jobs Van Jones declared clean energy to be a politically safe issue in November's midterm elections. With the Cape Wind climax at hand, politically volatile might be more like it.