Abandoning what could have been a fatal blow to the offshore wind farm proposed in Nantucket Sound, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a revised Coast Guard bill that eliminated veto power over the Cape Wind project for the governor of Massachusetts.
The vote last Tuesday officially ended a two-month standoff on Capitol Hill, which was notable for the fact that the Cape Wind controversy held up approval of an $8.7 billion annual reauthorization bill for the U.S. Coast Guard. The new legislation will allow the Cape Wind project to continue its ongoing environmental review process, although with a slightly enhanced regulatory role for the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard from the start has maintained an advisory role in the federal environmental review, as well as a permitting authority later on in the process. But under the revised legislation passed last week, the commandant of the Coast Guard will now also have the ability to mandate "reasonable" conditions to ensure navigational safety for the project.
And while the bill still singled out the Nantucket Sound proposal for additional review, the final language was seen as a key win for Cape Wind supporters because Gov. Mitt Romney, a vocal opponent of the project, would have likely killed the wind farm had he been handed the power to do so.
The potential gubernatorial veto power emerged this spring, attached as an amendment to the Coast Guard bill by a closed-door congressional committee. The amendment was authored by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and backed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, an outspoken critic of Cape Wind.
Widely viewed as a back door attempt to kill the project, the Stevens amendment drew criticism from across the country. And after more than two months of delay, Senators Kennedy and Stevens relented and withdrew the veto power proposal when faced with the possibility that the annual Coast Guard appropriations bill might have been voted down solely because of the Cape Wind language.
The turn of events reflects a shifting political wind for the offshore project, at a time when the need for domestic renewable energy sources is at the forefront of the national consciousness.
Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said the company was heartened by the outpouring of support from environmental organizations and members of the public who felt strongly that the Nantucket Sound proposal should be entitled to a full and fair review.
"I'll tell you this, there were a number of people very knowledgeable about legislation in Washington, D.C., who were ready to write an obituary for Cape Wind when the Stevens amendment came out," Mr. Rodgers said yesterday. "I think what has happened since then bodes well for the development of offshore wind in this country."
The first company to propose an offshore wind farm in the United States, Cape Wind in November 2001 unveiled plans to build 130 wind turbines on 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. Developers say it would provide roughly three-quarters of the energy needs of the Cape and Islands and serve as a symbolic step toward cleaner energy in this county. Opponents have raised concerns about a wide variety of potential impacts, ranging from navigation issues to migrating bird populations to aesthetics.
Meanwhile, the federal environmental agency that last year assumed lead regulatory authority over the Cape Wind project has been quietly collecting public comments about a new set of alternative offshore locations for the Nantucket Sound proposal. The public comment period will end next Friday, July 14.
The alternative sites, as published in a federal register notice one month ago, include shoals three miles southeast of Monomoy, three miles off the eastern edge of Nantucket, and a deep water alternative 12 miles off the Cape Cod National Seashore. The Minerals Management Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior, is also revisiting an earlier alternative location south of Tuckernuck island, between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
A Minerals Management Service spokesperson said yesterday that agency officials are looking at other alternative offshore sites in federal waters because the Energy Policy Act, passed by Congress last summer, gave them clear authority over renewable energy projects located on the Outer Continental Shelf.
By granting such jurisdiction, the energy legislation also transferred lead authority over the Cape Wind project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the management service. The lack of alternative site analysis was one of the primary criticisms about the environmental impact statement released by the Army Corps in November 2004.
Mark Forest, chief of staff for Cong. William Delahunt, a Cape Wind critic whose legislative district encompasses the Cape and Islands, said yesterday that he welcomed the new scope of the Minerals Management Service review, and hoped that members of the public would weigh in during the current public comment period. Mr. Forest also noted that the management service has indicated that it will consider modifying the size of the Cape Wind proposal, as well as requiring that the development be phased in stages.
"The Minerals Management Service is offering the public a whole new approach to this project. They have expressed an interest in looking at a variety of alternatives, and looking at modifying the scale of the project," Mr. Forest said. "What we find intriguing about the possible alternatives is that they are outside of an area that the commonwealth of Massachusetts has designated for protection as an ocean sanctuary - so they're definitely worth looking at."
The Minerals Management Service will review the latest round of public comments and prepare its own draft environmental impact statement, slated for release as early as this fall. The draft report will be followed by a series of public hearings, and the eventual release of a final impact statement. The management service is scheduled to complete its environmental statement in the fall of 2007, with a final permitting decision expected later that winter.
The newly created Coast Guard review is to be issued 60 days before the release of the draft impact statement, which means the commandant might post new navigation conditions as early as mid-summer.
Mr. Rodgers said he hopes the commandant in making his decision will rely on the knowledge of local Coast Guard officials who have been looking at the Nantucket Sound proposal for the last five and a half years. And he said that while he believed it is unfortunate that Congress placed this additional hurdle on the Cape Wind project, he was glad that the political will in Washington, D.C., allowed the regulatory review to continue.
"We think the most important thing is that the end result allows the Cape Wind review to get back on track and continue to move forward and receive close scrutiny about all of its potential impacts, including sea navigation," he said.