Bill Takes Aim at Wind Farm

Retreating Behind Closed Doors, Lawmakers Debate Amendment Tacked Onto Coast Guard Bill That Would Ban Turbines

By IAN FEIN

The fate of the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm hung in the balance in Washington, D.C. this week, where a small group of congressmen met behind closed doors to consider an amendment to a U.S. Coast Guard bill that would effectively kill the controversial project.

Supporters and opponents of the wind farm are anxiously awaiting final language on the amendment, which as proposed would ban turbines within 1.5 miles of shipping lanes or ferry routes. If adopted, the restriction would force Cape Wind Associates to abandon as many as half of the 130 turbines they want to build on Horseshoe Shoal - a prospect they say would make the project economically unfeasible.

A decision could emerge from the congressional conference committee as early as today.

"It's been a very intense time," Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said last night. "If this came to pass it would represent the worst in Congress. Everybody's closed out. It's a small number of people in a back room that are presumably making this decision. All we have are rumors about what's happening. Nobody knows for sure."

Rep. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, proposed the restriction last fall as an amendment to an $8.7 billion Coast Guard reauthorization bill. He added the amendment in a small conference committee of House and Senate leaders as a legislative maneuver that avoids public hearings or debate. The closed-door committee will, in effect, decide unilaterally whether the restriction lives or dies.

The back door tactic of the amendment attracted widespread attention and was criticized this week by U.S. Senators from both parties and in newspaper editorials up and down the East Coast, including one in The New York Times.

The amendment also comes at a time when the need for renewable energy is high in the national consciousness. If built, the Cape Wind project would likely be the country's first offshore wind farm.

Mr. Rodgers yesterday said the company is gratified by the number of people who have spoken out against the amendment. "We think it underscores not only support for developing more renewable energy in this country, but also for a sense of fair play, and indignation that all of this could come to an end by one stroke of a pen," he said.

Representative Young, the third-ranking Republican in the House and chairman of the House transportation committee, has not spoken publicly about his amendment. But in a five-page letter sent to other conference committee members on Feb. 15, he indicated that the amendment is tied specifically to Cape Wind.

"Nothing shows the need for my navigational safety standards amendment better than the proposed Cape Wind project," Mr. Young wrote. "I know others oppose the project entirely on a wide variety of economic, environmental, and tourism standards. I am not necessarily opposed to the project, but I am convinced we need a set of objective navigational safety standards that will assure that wind energy projects are properly sited with regard to navigational safety and national security."

As proposed, the closest Cape Wind turbine would come within 1,500 feet of a shipping lane. Mr. Rodgers said the Young amendment is overly restrictive because the federal government allows oil rigs to be sited within 500 feet of shipping channels.

The two ferry companies that operate regularly in Nantucket Sound - the Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises - wrote letters to the conference committee late last month in support of the Young amendment. Both companies have opposed the Cape Wind project on the grounds that it would pose a substantial hazard to safe navigation in the Sound.

Mr. Rodgers said yesterday that turbines would be located about one nautical mile from the Hyannis-Nantucket ferry route, and roughly half of a nautical mile from the Vineyard-Woods Hole route.

The full text of the letter authored by Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson appears on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.

The Coast Guard as of yesterday had not issued an official statement about the Young amendment. But Capt. Mary Landry, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Providence, R.I., told reporters this week that the amendment was unnecessary because the Coast Guard already had the authority to determine whether the turbines would pose a threat to navigation.

The Coast Guard is listed as one of 17 cooperating agencies involved in the federal review of the Cape Wind project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a draft environmental impact statement on the project issued in November 2004, found that while the project would result in minimal temporary impacts to marine navigation during construction, once completed it would actually serve as a navigation aid. The Corps noted that the turbines would be placed almost a half-mile apart, allowing ample room for vessels to pass safely in between, and that each turbine would have a specific identifiable number and would be marked on navigation charts to serve as references for mariners navigating in and around the Sound.

Congress in its Energy Policy Act signed into law last summer transferred lead regulatory authority over the Cape Wind project from the Army Corps to the Minerals Management Service, an environmental agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Management Service is expected to release a new environmental impact report on the project sometime this spring, and hopes to make a final permitting decision within the next year.

A service spokesman yesterday declined to comment on the Young amendment, and said the agency is continuing to forge ahead with its review.

The Young amendment is not the first legislative maneuver on Capitol Hill aimed directly at Cape Wind; Sen. John Warner of Virginia in 2004 tried unsuccessfully to slip a moratorium on offshore wind farms into a $447 billion defense spending bill.

But the move by Representative Young has attracted more scrutiny, in part because of the distance between his constituency in Alaska and the wind farm proposed off the coast of Massachusetts. Some have questioned ties between Representative Young and a lobbyist hired by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound - a well-funded, Cape-based nonprofit which was formed in opposition to the Cape Wind project and is regarded as the developers' chief critic. Some of the language in the Feb. 15 letter authored by Mr. Young mirrors previous statements found in Alliance publications.

Others have speculated about the involvement of Massachusetts congressmen in the drafting of the amendment.

Cape and Islands Rep. William Delahunt and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, both vocal critics of the Cape Wind project, have through statements made by their offices suggested that the Young amendment deserves due consideration in the absence of a stronger federal regulatory framework.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry - the 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee - has in the last four years never taken a stance on the Cape Wind project. But he stepped into the debate about the Young amendment last Friday when he issued a brief statement that said it would derail other potential offshore wind farm projects elsewhere in the country.

"The Young amendment is an insult to Americans who care about good government," Senator Kerry said in the statement.