Cape Wind Plan Sees Potential in Year Ahead

By IAN FEIN

Beginning today, developers of the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound will face a new political landscape as they continue their bid to build the nation's first offshore wind farm.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick, an ardent Cape Wind supporter, was sworn into office on Beacon Hill yesterday afternoon, minutes after the new Democrat-controlled Congress convened in Washington, D.C., with renewable energy reform as a top priority for the coming legislative session.

But results from the historic November election were not all positive for Cape Wind supporters. The wave of Democratic victories last month swept out of office two moderate New England Republicans who were vocal advocates for the project on Capitol Hill, and the shift in control will also increase the power and influence of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Cong. William Delahunt, two of the strongest Cape Wind opponents.

Groups on both sides of the project are still trying to interpret the political changes, acknowledging that the results present a mixed bag.

"On the state level, it's certainly gratifying for us to have a governor that sees the project in a larger context - as far as economics, the environment and energy - and that there's an intersection of those things," Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said last month.

"Overall we saw the elections as more positive than negative," said Audra Parker, director of strategic planning for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a well-funded Cape-based nonprofit that formed in opposition to Cape Wind. "But it was not clear across the board."

Cape Wind wants to build 130 wind turbines on 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. Supporters say it would provide roughly three-quarters of the electricity needs of the Cape and Islands and serve as a symbolic step toward cleaner energy in this country, while opponents are concerned about aesthetic and navigation impacts, and also broader policy questions of a private developer using public land without paying for it.

After five years of review, the project is still working its way through an environmental regulatory process, and the federal agency in charge of the permitting does not expect to make a final decision for at least another year. Even though elected officials have no direct say in the permits, supporters and opponents of the $1 billion project have long acknowledged that its ultimate fate will face heavy political influences from state and federal officials.

In their governor and attorney general, Massachusetts voters last fall replaced two staunch Cape Wind opponents who had vowed to fight the project despite any favorable permitting decisions. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, who is now preparing a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, visited the White House two years ago to lobby against Cape Wind and pledged at one point to use all of the powers of his office to kill the project.

Governor Patrick, on the other hand, made energy reform and his early support for Cape Wind a hallmark of his gubernatorial campaign. Last month he appointed Ian Bowles, a fellow Cape Wind supporter and former Woods Hole resident, as his secretary of energy and the environment.

The new Massachusetts attorney general, Martha Coakley, is also expected to be a welcome reprieve for project developers. She replaces Cape wind opponent Thomas Reilly, who two years ago said that he would challenge any federal permit.

Though she has not yet taken a formal stance on Cape Wind, Attorney General Coakley, a former Middlesex County district attorney with long ties to the Vineyard, told the Gazette this summer that she would analyze factors including the soaring price of gasoline and the high demand for energy before putting together a position on the issue. Her statement contrasted sharply with Mr. Reilly, who in a separate interview this summer called the proposed project a power plant and said Nantucket Sound should be off-limits to private developers. Mr. Reilly did not run for reelection as the top Massachusetts law enforcement official, and instead launched an unsuccessful gubernatorial primary campaign against Governor Patrick.

Though the changes on Beacon Hill are expected to help Cape Wind by removing potential roadblocks, jurisdiction over the wind farm remains largely with the federal government, where there have been multiple legislative maneuvers aimed at killing the project. The overall atmosphere for Cape Wind is expected to be more favorable under the new 110th Congress, with Democratic leaders pledging to hold hearings on climate change and push new tax credits and regulations promoting renewable energy.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, will take over the environment and public works committee from Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, who used his position as chairman to attack media coverage of global warming, which he called "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Another key target of environmental groups, former Cong. Richard Pombo, a Republican from California and the outgoing chairman of the house resources committee, was defeated in the fall election by Jerry McNerney, a wind energy executive whose company intends to manufacture turbines.

But Cape Wind also lost two important Capitol Hill allies in Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Cong. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, popular moderate Republicans who were both toppled by Democratic challengers this fall. Senator Chafee had publicly expressed his support for the wind farm and visited Horseshoe Shoal with project officials last summer, and Congressman Bass last spring played a key role in holding up a house vote on a federal bill that would have given Gov. Romney veto power over Cape Wind.

Meanwhile, the strongest Cape Wind political opponents in Washington D.C. are gaining added influence over the project. The second most senior Democrat in the senate, Senator Kennedy will now become one of the most powerful players in all of Congress. The Democratic majority will also increase the power of the entire Massachusetts delegation, including Congressman Delahunt, whose legislative district encompasses the Cape and Vineyard.

Mr. Rodgers said Cape Wind hopes to meet with Senator Kennedy at some point to discuss the project. But he added that, despite the reelection of Congressman Delahunt and Senator Kennedy, the new state leadership could change perceptions about public support for the wind farm.

"Before the election, the most visible representatives of the state who took a position on the project were all strongly opposed. And Cape Wind opponents were certainly eager to get the rest of the country to believe that meant Massachusetts was against the project," Mr. Rodgers said last month. "With Governor Romney and Attorney General Reilly on their way out, we think that impression - to the extent it was out there - will change."