US Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar yesterday approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm — the controversial Cape Wind project first proposed nine years ago in the beloved waters of Nantucket Sound— and proclaimed the dawn of a new era of clean energy in the United States.
“This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic coast,’’ Salazar said yesterday at a State House news conference with Governor Deval Patrick at his side.
Cape Wind Associates, the developer, said it planned to begin construction of the 130 turbines about five miles off Cape Cod by the end of the year, even as the main opposition group announced that it would immediately file a lawsuit in an effort to block the $1 billion project.
Proposed at a time of increasing awareness of the threat of manmade global warming, Cape Wind became a cause celebre for politicians and environmentalists who want the United States to move away from its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity. But the project drew just as passionate opposition from many of the moneyed and influential residents of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket who don’t want their pristine views disturbed.
Big names, from Senator Edward M. Kennedy (against) to Walter Cronkite (against, then for) joined in the long battle. Neither man lived to see its resolution.
“America needs offshore wind power and with this project, Massachusetts will lead the nation,’’ Patrick said, noting that Cape Wind would create 1,000 construction jobs and help the state in its goal to be a national clean energy leader.
The project is also a critical milestone for President Barack Obama, who pledged during his campaign to make America a leader in clean energy, but then failed to broker an international climate deal in Copenhagen last year; as of yet, he has also been unable to sign an energy and climate bill into law. Even as the federal government developed offshore energy rules and a suite of other projects were proposed off the East Coast in recent years, the Cape Wind decision loomed as a test of what kind of energy future the country would choose.
Salazar’s decision — first expected a year ago — was delayed because of complaints from two Wampanoag Native American tribes that the turbines, which would stand more than 400 feet above the ocean surface, would disturb spiritual sun greetings and possibly ancestral artifacts and burial grounds on the seabed. Nantucket Sound was once exposed land before the sea level rose thousands of years ago.
While Salazar said yesterday that he had ordered modifications to the project to avoid impacts on historic and cultural properties, most of them were announced years ago by Cape Wind, including a requirement that the turbines be painted off-white and reduced in number from 170 to 130. However, Salazar will require Cape Wind to conduct far more extensive archeological surveys in Nantucket Sound, although he indicated in federal filing that he doubts many, if any, artifacts or ancestral remains will be found.
Salazar also said in federal filings that his agency wanted to consult with the tribes to determine any financial compensation for impacts on cultural resources. One possibility, he said, would be for Cape Wind to give the tribes $200,000 annually for the life of the 21-year project. In addition, the tribes could receive some of the $3.5 million the state of Massachusetts has set aside from Cape Wind to address impacts of historical and cultural resources in or near Nantucket Sound.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said he was pleased Salazar would reopen “government to government consultation,’’ but argued that “no amount of mitigation will change the fact that this is a site of great historical and cultural significance for our Tribe.’’ The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard posted a short statement on its website saying it was “disheartened’’ and indicated it would likely go to court to stop the project.
The main opposition group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, wasted little time in launching the next salvo, vowing to seek an injunction in court to prevent construction while the case is played out.
“We will win in the courts based on fact, not politics,’’ said an angry Audra Parker of the Alliance shortly after Salazar’s announcement.
Yet for Jim Gordon, the often unemotional president of Cape Wind, the day unfolded like a dream. Gordon got a call from Salazar a half-hour before the Interior Secretary announced the decision.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion,’’ he said at a press conference at the Park Plaza Hotel yesterday afternoon. “It was like a film of nine years of events that went through my head.’’
Gordon, who said the company’s next goal is securing financing, hopes construction will begin by the end of this year and be completed by 2012. The wind farm is expected to produce enough wind power to handle three-quarters of the electric needs of the Cape and Islands, although the price of its electricity is expected to be higher than current prices of traditional coal and gas power.
The project — in a sheltered shallow area described by wind experts as one of the best places to build a wind farm off the East Coast - has undergone years of environmental review and been the subject of intense political maneuvering, including formidable opposition from Kennedy, whose Hyannis Port family compound overlooks Nantucket Sound. While opponents’ main concern is aesthetics — the turbines would be visible on the horizon off Cape Cod — the battle was fought by raising other issues, including possible effects on property values and harm to birds, fishing, aviation, and historic and cultural sites.
Paul Kirk, a close friend of Kennedy's who served as interim senator after Kennedy's death, said the veteran lawmaker would have been profoundly upset at Wednesday's announcement.
``He would have been gravely disappointed,'' Kirk said. ``I think this is seriously misguided. To me, this is like putting a big box store in West Barnstable Village before you figure out what the total zoning plan is for the town.''
Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry, who has been criticized for not previously taking a stronger stance in favor of the project, said he was convinced any concerns have been dealt with.
“I believe the future of wind power in the Massachusetts and the United States will be stronger knowing that the process was exhaustive, and that it was allowed to work and wind its way through the vetting at all levels with public input,’’ Kerry said in a statement. “This is jobs and clean energy for Massachusetts.’’
Newly elected Republican Senator Scott Brown, however, called Salazar’s announcement “misguided.’’
“With unemployment hovering near ten percent in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind project will jeopardize industries that are vital to the Cape’s economy, such as tourism and fishing, and will also impact aviation safety and the rights of the Native American tribes in the area,’’ he said in a statement.
Globe staff reporters Martin Finucane, David Abel, Matt Viser, Susan Milligan and Jonathan Saltzman helped prepare this report.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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