President Obama's pick to head the Federal Aviation Administration will remove himself from decisions involving his former consulting firm's clients, who include opponents of the nation's first offshore wind-energy project, off Cape Cod, the White House confirmed Friday.
J. Randolph Babbitt worked as an aviation consultant at his firm, Oliver Wyman, when the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound hired him to fight the high-profile Cape Cod project on the basis that it "interfered with airplane radar signals, which poses a public safety risk."
As FAA administrator, he could be instrumental in killing the Cape Wind Project and other wind farms if the agency determines they pose a threat to aviation. Mr. Babbitt was president of the Air Line Pilots Association before he took the post representing the Alliance.
An Obama administration official, who was not allowed to speak publicly about the issue, told The Washington Times that "we expect that in some cases involving a former client, Randy Babbitt would be required to recuse himself, assuming he is confirmed as FAA administrator."
The administration official said that Mr. Babbitt's firm performs "technician and engineering work, not political work, and did not go into the study with a view one way or the other on whether the specific wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound was appropriate."
Mr. Babbitt told the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board in September it was "imprudent to erect such a large mass of structures in the area of three airports and an Air National Guard facility without a definitive conclusion regarding the danger they may pose." He added that the wind turbines could interfere with the air radar system on Cape Cod.
The proposed $1 billion wind farm on the Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound includes 130 wind turbines that would power 420,000 homes.
The Obama administration continues to say renewable energy must be part of the nation's comprehensive energy plan. Its New Energy for America plan calls for renewable sources to supply 10 percent of the nation's electricity by 2012. A recent offshore energy survey conducted by the Interior Department and U.S. Geological Survey shows an extensive network of wind turbines along the entire Atlantic Coast could meet one-fourth of the nation's electricity needs.
The project was announced in 2001 but has yet to break ground, owing to opposition and permit obstacles. It needs federal permits from the FAA, the Interior Department and the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local permits, to get up and running.
The Interior Department concluded in January that the project would have "no major adverse effect on the environment," but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has yet to issue rules for offshore energy development or a permit for the project.
"We expect Salazar to issue a permit by the end of May," Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said. "We're virtually complete with permitting at the state and local level. We're just waiting for federal permits."
A unanimous vote by the Massachusetts siting board March 13 made the state and local permits easier to obtain. The board agreed to grant Cape Wind a certificate that combines into one permit the nine permits needed to lay electric cables under the ocean floor.
Under the Bush administration, the FAA granted the Cape Wind Project two 'Determinations of No Hazard' permits, which gave it the green light to proceed with construction. These permits have a shelf life of 18 months, and Cape Wind's most recent permit has expired. The project has encountered setbacks in an attempt to obtain a new FAA permit.
On Feb. 14, the FAA ruled that the project would pose a "presumed hazard" for airplanes because of interference with air-traffic control radar systems.
Those who oppose the project said the ruling reduces the prospect that Cape Wind will ever be built.
"This [the February ruling] has a huge bearing on the Cape Wind Project" and makes the chance it will ever happen "low," said Audra Parker, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which was formed in 2002 to fight the wind farm, owing to its location.
Mr. Rodgers said he is not so sure the fight is over. He said the Cape Wind Project is in "active negotiations with the FAA" and thinks it will be able to solve the interference issue with the radar system on Cape Cod.
However, Cape Wind is concerned that Mr. Babbitt's previous work could prevent the project from obtaining the permit it needs.
"We would hope and expect him to recuse himself at FAA on any matter concerning Cape Wind, given his fairly recent and paid consulting work for the opposition group," Mr. Rodgers said.