Interior Secretary Approves Cape Wind, Nation’s First Offshore Wind Farm

In a groundbreaking decision that some say will usher in a new era of clean energy, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today he had approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the controversial Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod.

A map of the wind farm area.”America needs offshore wind power and with this project, Massachusetts will lead the nation,” Patrick said.

The decision had been delayed for almost a year because of two Wampanoag Native American tribes’ complaints that the 130 turbines, which would stand more than 400 feet above the ocean surface, would disturb spiritual sun greetings and possibly ancestral artifacts and burial grounds on the seabed. The ocean floor was once exposed land before the sea level rose thousands of years ago.

Salazar said he had ordered modifications to “minimize and mitigate” the impact of the project that would “help protect the historical, cultural, and environmental resources of Nantucket Sound.” He said his approval would require the project developer, Cape Wind Associates, to conduct additional marine archaeological surveys and take other steps to reduce the project’s visual impact.

“I am convinced there is a path we can take forward that both honors our responsibility to protect historical and cultural resources and at the same time meets the need to repower our economy with clean energy produced from wind power,” he said.

He said the United States was leading “a clean energy revolution that is reshaping our future. … Cape Wind is the opening of a new chapter in that future and we are all a part of that history.”

David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said federal officials would enter into “government to government” conversations with the Wampanoag tribes, if the tribes are interested, that could result in financial compensation to “devote to cultural resources.”

The state has already set aside $10 million for mitigation for the project, state officials said, but it was unclear how much, if any, would go to the Wampanoags. The developer is also being required to set aside mitigation funds.

Yet it was unclear if the Wampanoag tribes would talk to the federal government. Cedric Cromwell, Chairman, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe said in a statement he was deeply disappointed with the decision.

“While we strongly support renewable energy, and appreciate that Secretary Salazar will be reopening the government to government consultation, no amount of mitigation will change the fact that this is a site of great historical and cultural significance for our Tribe, and is inappropriate for this project.”

Senator John F. Kerry said he was convinced any concerns have been dealt with during the nine years it has taken to issue a permit for the project.

“I believe the future of wind power in the Massachusetts and the United States will be stronger knowing that the process was exhaustive, and that it was allowed to work and wind its way through the vetting at all levels with public input,” said Kerry in a statement. “This is jobs and clean energy for Massachusetts.”

Supporters have long said an approval would be a giant step forward for renewable energy efforts in the country, while opponents have said they would seek to kill the project through legal action. The project, if it is not held up by lawsuits, could begin construction within the year.

Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, an organization that opposes Cape Wind, said the group would move quickly to seek a court injunction to prevent construction from beginning. “We will win in the courts based on facts, not politics,” she said, arguing that the project would violate historic preservation and environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

But one legal expert said it was very unlikely that the project’s foes could obtain a federal injunction. At best, said Pat Parenteau, who teaches at Vermont Law School, they might be able to file a suit that delays completion for a couple of years.

“It would be very difficult to get an injunction to stop a project that’s been through nine years of review by the state and by the federal government,” he said. “People have been poring over this project with a fine-tooth comb for so long that my litigator’s instincts tell me it’s going to be very hard to find a fatal flaw in what they’ve done.”

The project has undergone years of environmental review and political maneuvering, including opposition from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose home overlooked Nantucket Sound. While opponents’ main concern is aesthetics — the turbines would be visible low on the horizon from the Cape and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — the battle was fought by raising other issues, including possible effects on property values and harm to birds, fishing, aviation, and historic and cultural sites.

Horseshoe Shoals, the part of Nantucket Sound where the wind farm is proposed, is widely considered the best place along the East Coast to build a wind farm. That’s in part because the site is in shallow, sheltered waters close to shore — the nearest beach is five miles away. But it is also because it is in federal waters: Political will to build such a massive wind farm in state waters three miles from shore does not exist.

Salazar said the project would create 1,000 construction jobs and produce energy equivalent to that of a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. He said it would reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent of 175,000 cars.

Cape Wind Associates has said the wind farm could produce enough wind power to handle three-quarters of the electric needs of the Cape and Islands. The price of its electricity is expected to be higher than power from coal and gas. The company is still in negotiations with National Grid, the utility, that has agreed to purchase some of the power the facility produces.

In a statement, Cape Wind president Jim Gordon said Salazar’s annoucement “launched the American offshore wind industry.

“Going first is never easy and Cape Wind is proud of the role we played in raising awareness for what will become a major component of our energy future and in helping the United States develop a regulatory framework for this new exciting industry.”

US Senator Scott Brown criticized Salazar’s decision, saying it was “misguided.”

“With unemployment hovering near ten percent in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind project will jeopardize industries that are vital to the Cape’s economy, such as tourism and fishing, and will also impact aviation safety and the rights of the Native American tribes in the area. I am also skeptical about the cost-savings and job number predictions we have heard from proponents of the project,” Brown said in a statement.

But George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, hailed the decision, saying it was “a critical step toward ending our reliance on foreign oil and achieving energy independence. ”

“Those who continue to resist and litigate are simply on the wrong side of history,” he said.

© 2010 The Boston Globe

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