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Environmentalism? Yee Haw!

While Massachusetts politicians blow off wind farms, oil-rich Texas, of all places, is embracing this renewable energy source. Since when is the Lone Star State greener than we are?

(Illustration by Devon Bowman)

How embarrassing is this? Pro-environment, green-thinking Massachusetts has virtually shut the door to alternative energy developers such as Cape Wind. Meanwhile, oil-loving, redneck Texas is poised to build the nation's largest wind farm. Most of our local political establishment has united in opposition to wind. At the same time, Lone Star politicians are spearheading what they call the "Texas wind rush" in the Gulf of Mexico. Massachusetts was once in the fore-front of developing renewable energies. By the end of this year, Texas will probably be the number one source of wind power in the United States.

The irony is delicious, and the Texans are quick to take note. "After today, whenever Massachusetts, New York, and California try to court wind-energy developers, I think they'll find a sign on the door that says, 'Gone to Texas,'" said State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at a press conference last month, when he announced a 30-year lease with wind developer Superior Renewable Energy. Texas is putting its money where our mouths are - and the question is why.

John Calaway, head of Superior, recalls a "scouting mission" to the Berkshires several years ago. Local leaders told him it would be difficult to get the necessary permits, and Calaway mentioned how receptive Texas was to his plans. "'Boy,' I was told, 'you're not in Texas' - and that sent me running." Massachusetts, he tells me, no longer interests him. "Why would we waste our time?"

Indeed. Cape Wind's president, Jim Gordon, has been wasting both time and money. After more than five years and $25 million, prospects for his 420-megawatt project are bleak. And it wasn't just the "process," as arduous as it may be, that tripped up Gordon (and likely will trip up businessman Jay Cashman's just-proposed wind farm in Buzzards Bay). Instead, it was politics. "Look at Cape Wind - someone plays by the rules yet gets cut off. That's not a climate that makes people want to come here," says Greg Watson, a vice president at the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, a quasi-public agency.

It's an old story. Businesses and investors go to places that want them, where the rules are predictable and local government supportive.

Still, that prompts the question, why are we so difficult? Leadership is one factor. Patterson sees wind as Texas's future - "recognizing that oil and gas will someday go away, we need to diversify our portfolio," he said at his recent press conference - and in his position as land commissioner, he controls most of the decisions relating to state lands and coastal waters. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Ted Kennedy - the state's most powerful pol - adamantly opposes Cape Wind. There are ironies here, too. Patterson built his reputation on the Second Amendment - it was his legislation that let Texans carry concealed weapons - but here he is, on the side of the crunchies. The great liberal Kennedy, meanwhile, may be wind power's most visible opponent nationwide.

Another factor is classic NIMBYism. Massachusetts didn't invent the "not in my backyard" attitude that critics pin on the Cape-loving Kennedy. But we have our own twist. "In New England, we've created a culture - usually centered around environmental issues - that allows the smallest minority to stop things," says Robb Pratt, who led the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust until February. Thus it is that a handful of opponents can thwart Cape Wind, despite the project enjoying overwhelming support from the state's residents.

There is a deeper problem, however, one that perhaps speaks to the reason our economy lags behind the rest of the country. For most of its history, Massachusetts has been able to import energy. Making it - even with so benign a technology as wind - is a messy business. It takes money and investors, and the projects are necessarily enormous. Here in the Bay State - where "industrial" and "for-profit" are sometimes epithets - that makes us uncomfortable. Wind is OK in theory, but we really don't like getting our hands dirty. Texas, on the other hand, is used to it. Oil derricks dot backyards. The state built its economy as the hydrocarbon supplier to the nation. "Texas knows energy and money. Wind, like oil and gas, is simply another energy resource that's going to make money," Patterson tells me. "We look at Cape Wind, scratch our heads, and say, 'How can that be?' " he adds. "It's just bizarre."

Not, you understand, that Texas is complaining.

Tom Keane is a partner in a private equity firm and a former Boston city councilor. E-mail him at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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