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Hypocrisy, blowin' in the wind

Clean, green wind power seems like a natural for Nantucket Sound, but a surprising array of celebrity opponents has deflected the plan, say the authors of Cape Wind.

By GREGORY McNAMEE
Published June 10, 2007


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Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound

By Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb

PublicAffairs, 336 pages, $26.95

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It is one of the smaller ironies of life that West Texas - the home of our oil industry and power base for a presidential administration with close ties to it - is among the nation's leading producers of wind-generated electricity. - It makes sense. The wind blows there, so hard, locals say, that if it ever stopped all the cows would fall over. Even as the oil economists talk gloomily of resource shortages and the effects of Hubbard's Peak, the wind blows endlessly, with no end in sight.

It does so in Nantucket Sound, too, thanks to the coincidence of a forceful stream of air from the sea and topography that makes for a perfect funnel for it. But whereas the good citizens of Fort Davis and, for that matter, the wealthier ones of Palm Springs to the west seem not to mind the sight of wind towers reaping all that energy, the people of Hyannisport, Osterville and Martha's Vineyard have loudly decried the prospect of turbines blocking the view from one mansion to the other.

That grand battle is the subject of environmental journalist Wendy Williams and Providence Journal editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb's vivid, sometimes maddening Cape Wind. "Money and corrupt government officials, " the authors charge, "are hijacking our nation's economic and environmental future." They make that case efficiently and effectively.

It is another irony that much of that money, and much of our government, is in the hands of those who would gladly see wind farms and alternative energy somewhere else - anywhere, that is, except their back yards.

Call it Nimbyism with a vengeance, wielded by some very strange political bedfellows, including three U.S. senators: Ted Kennedy, ubiquitous lord of a local manor; Ted Stevens, the conservative Alaska author of "the bridge to nowhere" and other porcine curiosities; and moderate Republican John Warner of Virginia, whose personal and political fortunes began under the tutelage of former father-in-law Paul Mellon, a familiar presence in the better quarters of Nantucket Sound.

Add to their number historian David McCullough, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and TV icon Walter Cronkite, and you have a formidable opposition to any would-be wind farmer off the Massachusetts shore.

So 51-year-old entrepreneur Jim Gordon discovered when he arrived there with a vision of definitively renewable, clean energy that would set America on the path of breaking free from foreign oil: a field of offshore windmills, reaping the sea and, as a bonus, creating new habitat for increasingly scant fish.

The strange thing was, Gordon also discovered, the year-rounders, the working-class locals, liked the sound of homegrown power. Even as the part-timers denounced him as a "Boston developer, " the alternative energy pioneer slowly gathered supporters and allies.

The Sierra Club was not one of them. Neither was Massachusetts' then-Gov. Mitt Romney, though he started off vaguely liking the sound of an entrepreneurial, private-enterprise solution to a complex social problem.

But Cronkite, who bothered to look into the specifics of Gordon's plan, did change his mind; and even as Ted Kennedy fulminated, Gordon discovered that younger voters, in their 20s and 30s, also favored what he called Cape Wind, along with a long list of alternative-energy projects.

That is one reason, the authors surmise, that Kennedy protege John Kerry wishy-washily went along with Cape Wind "if it were given a clean bill of environmental health." After all, they also surmise, those younger voters rightly took Kennedy's opposition, now carried on at the Capitol, as a species of elitism. That opposition and that perception, party operatives worried, "could end his hold on the Democratic Party in Massachusetts - unthinkable only a few years earlier."

Kennedy is still in office, and five years later, the Cape Wind project is in limbo, though not dead. Deep-pocketed clean-energy investors have taken their euros and dollars to other states in the aftermath, convinced that Bay State politicians are their enemies. "The Massachusetts governor was obstructing projects, while Texas was welcoming them, " one Irish wind-power developer remarked.

Williams and Whitcomb, both with good Cape Cod credentials, are open in their advocacy for Gordon's vision of a Nantucket Sound full of offshore windmills, noiselessly whirring. The story the two writers deliver, laden with enough political intrigue to keep a John Grisham fan happy, is a real curiosity, for in it the true environmentalists wear business suits, while the in-name-only ones wear deck shoes and yacht caps.

That makes for a strange landscape, one full of portents, moral lessons, mysteries and, yes, ironies. In the meantime, the price of gas and other fossil fuels is soaring - even as the wind blows free.

Gregory McNamee is the author of several books, among them "Gila: The Life and Death of an American River." He is a columnist for the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog (blogs.britannica.com), writing on scientific and environmental topics.

 

 

[Last modified June 8, 2007, 16:36:00]


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