State Approves Cape Wind Plan

Secretary of Environment Clears Jim Gordon's Wind Farm; Federal Review Expected to Last Through Year

By IAN FEIN

The state's top environmental official ruled last week that developers of the Cape Wind project have fulfilled their environmental review requirements on the state level, and that the offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound would provide significant benefits to air quality and energy reliability in New England.

The decision cleared a major regulatory hurdle for Cape Wind, which may now proceed with the remaining permits needed from state and local agencies. Federal environmental review remains separate and ongoing, and is expected to last at least another year.

In his written approval released on Friday, Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs Ian A. Bowles addressed the project in the context of a looming crisis posed by global climate change. He said the clean energy produced by Cape Wind would displace enough greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants that it would be equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road.

"Global climate change, sea level rise, dependence on foreign oil, and the health impacts of local and regional air pollution create an urgent need for sustainable alternatives to energy produced from fossil fuels. While new technologies are not without impacts themselves, these pale in comparison to the scale of impacts that continued fossil fuel emissions will have on the environment of Massachusetts," Secretary Bowles wrote in his 28-page certificate.

"Overall, the project represents a balanced and thoughtful commitment to action that will contribute to the long-term preservation and enhancement of our environment," he added.

A big win for Cape Wind supporters, the release of the certificate was followed by a flurry of press conferences and public statements from parties on all sides of the billion-dollar project. Cape Wind officials repeated earlier assertions that their project, the first offshore wind farm proposed in the United States, would help establish Massachusetts as a worldwide leader in the emerging clean energy industry.

"We were pleased and gratified both at the findings in the decision and the restatement of longstanding public policy goals in Massachusetts of getting more power from renewable energy sources," Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said this week. "This administration and Secretary Bowles recognize the important regional economic and environmental benefits that a project like Cape Wind can provide."

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound said in a statement on Friday that the decision reflected a willingness by the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick to "sacrifice Nantucket Sound in order to advance its renewable energy agenda."

Cape Wind developers are looking to build 130 wind turbines spread out over 25 square miles on Horseshoe Shoal. Supporters say the project would provide 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, among other things.

Secretary Bowles noted at a press conference last Friday that the project underwent more than five years of environmental studies on the state level, dating back to the original Cape Wind application in November 2001. He explained that the purpose of the state's review was "to ensure that the impacts of the construction and operation of the portion of the project within Massachusetts jurisdiction have been adequately avoided, minimized and mitigated."

"I find that they have," he added.

As part of his certificate, Secretary Bowles also unveiled on Friday a $10 million mitigation package Cape Wind officials agreed to provide as compensation for unavoidable impacts from the project. The package would cover $780,000 for restoration of prime bird nesting habitat in Buzzards Bay, and another $4.2 million toward future marine habitat and coastal recreation projects around the Cape and Islands.

The $10 million sum also included an estimated $5.6 million in lease payments that Cape Wind would provide for its use of public waters. The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandated lease payments for offshore renewable energy projects in federal waters, and specified that 27 per cent of those revenues will then be shared with the bordering state.

The proposed wind turbines are located entirely within federal waters, more than three miles from shore, but state and local agencies maintain jurisdiction over those aspects of the project that fall within the commonwealth - namely, the two underwater transmission lines that would tie the turbines into the New England electrical power grid. The state environmental report filed by Cape Wind in February and certified by Secretary Bowles last week will now serve as the working reference document for those state and local agencies, which include the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection, Cape Cod Commission, and town conservation commissions in Barnstable and Yarmouth.

Secretary Bowles acknowledged in his certificate that he limited the scope of his review to potential impacts from the installation of the underwater transmission cables, and deferred more detailed and lengthy consideration of larger impacts from the overall project to the ongoing federal review.

The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency with lead regulatory authority for Cape Wind, is expected to issue its draft environmental impact statement on the project later this month. Service officials will then hold public hearings on the project, with a goal of releasing a final report in early 2008 and making a permitting decision soon thereafter.

Though opponents are expected to appeal any permits and tie the project up in litigation, developers estimate that, under a best-case scenario, construction could start sometime in 2009.

"We look forward to the day that the final permit decisions can be made, based on whether the project will be found in public interest. And we believe that it will," Mr. Rodgers said this week. "At that time, we look forward to being able to provide three-quarters of the electricity needs of the Cape and Islands from an endless and clean energy source that is blowing right by us."