Cape Wind: It’s Complicated

Obama gave the green-energy project a green light. Now, a slew of messy coalitions are going to battle over the future of clean energy.  
By VALERIE VANDE PANNE  |  May 7, 2010


Thousands of years ago, the terrain beneath what is now Nantucket Sound was dry, and populated by the ancestors of the Wampanoag people, who continue to revere it. When tribe members of the Mashpee Wampanoag look out over the sound, they see their past, an ancestral burial ground, and, every morning in a spiritual ritual, the rising sun.

That last element is particularly important to the Wampanoags, as their name translates to “People of the First Light.”

The tribe fears that, should the controversial green-energy Cape Wind project come to fruition, a small army of 440-foot-tall wind turbines (130, altogether) will not only disturb its ancestral grounds, but also obstruct its view of the solar orb as it rises in the eastern sky.

Had the federal government been quicker to acknowledge the tribe’s connection to the sound, the Cape Wind project might have been dead in the water from the get-go. But it was not until recently that a study commissioned by Cape Wind Associates, LLC, turned up evidence that “serves to corroborate [the Wampanoag] oral traditions” — prompting the National Parks service to ask that the Nantucket Sound be added to the National Register of Historical Places, a move that would have shut out Cape Wind’s proposed renewable-energy project in a 24-square-mile stretch known as Horseshoe Shoal.

Last week, however, the contentious Cape Wind project was approved anyway by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, further muddying what is already a particularly complicated quagmire.

As is the norm in these cases, the difficult decision, which involved nine years of government-permitting processes, elated some groups and outraged others. But even in this rancorous political era, Cape Wind stands out as being wrought with more bizarre alliances and fraught with more tension than any in recent memory.

The divide among supporters and opponents can’t be determined by class: there’s money and working-class sweat on both sides of the issue. It’s not split between environmentalists and Wall Street, either — people on both sides favor the expansion of “green energy” sources. And the argument does not reflect party lines: there are Democrats and Republicans both for and against it. In fact, there are split factions within a federal agency, the Department of the Interior.

At best, the sides can be described as a collection of factions with unique motivations that are undeterred by Salazar’s stamp of approval and determined to continue their fights in the courts for years to come.

Strange bedfellows
Abortion, gun control, and health care are not uncontroversial issues, but their fans and foes tend to be somewhat easy to peg. Cape Wind, however, has a set of associations so peculiar and confounding that it updates the old saw “politics makes strange bedfellows” into one more along the lines of “politics makes a grainy, difficult-to-follow orgy.”

Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, who flanked Salazar at the press conference, has long defended the Cape Wind project, and its approval is largely seen as a victory for him. (Two of his presumed challengers in the next gubernatorial election, Republican Charlie Baker and State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an independent, are against Cape Wind.)

The project has also been backed by Democratic congressman Ed Markey, a leading figure on the Hill in green matters, as well as Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Don Carcieri of Rhode Island.

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  Topics: News Features , Deval Patrick, John F. Kennedy School of Government, U.S. Republican Party,  More more >
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