Sunday, March 26, 2006

In the interconnected world of energy and environmental policy, where difficult tradeoffs have always been the rule of the day, a win-win solution like the Cape Wind offshore windmill project doesn’t come around very often. Embracing cutting-edge technology, Cape Wind epitomizes the long-term need to exploit renewable energy sources to alleviate America’s dependence on fossil fuels. And it could do so in real time.

Cape Wind would construct 130 windmills off the coast of Massachusetts to harness the wind of Nantucket Sound, generating enough electricity to satisfy 75 percent of the needs of Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while exerting downward pressure on electricity prices throughout the New England region. Cape Wind has already been approved by the Massachusetts Energy Facility Siting Board and is approaching the end of an exhaustive federal regulatory process, which will almost certainly result in approval.

The no-brainer response must be to embrace it with all the gusto that power-industry CEOs, Mother Earth News subscribers and politicians on both sides of the aisle can muster. For the most part, that has been happening. Massachusetts’ households, for example, favor the project by a 6-1 majority.

Unfortunately, the self-evident response has not been completely universal. Leading the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) brigade, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a self-styled environmentalist whose family owns a sprawling waterfront compound on Cape Cod, opposes the project. Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska also seems determined to torpedo Cape Wind. At the last minute, he has introduced an ill-advised amendment into the conference-committee proceedings for the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill. Opposed by the Coast Guard itself, the Young amendment would ban all offshore wind projects within 1.5 nautical miles of a shipping or ferry lane. The amendment purports to respond to a British study that raised concerns about large wind turbines interfering with navigational radar. However, Britain only bans wind turbines within 550 yards of major shipping lanes; and 1.5 nautical miles is more than five times that distance. Moreover, U.S. regulations permit oil-drilling rigs within 500 feet of shipping lanes. Also, Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico — chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Energy Committee — oppose the Young amendment.

The Young amendment was never considered by any congressional committee; and it was never debated on the House or Senate floor. In the current environment of increased transparency, its last-minute introduction into secretive conference-committee negotiations hardly seems appropriate.

Mr. Young is a conservative Republican from Alaska whose commendable dream of developing the oil and gas resources of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was thwarted in December by none other than a filibustering Ted Kennedy. Nobody seems to know why Mr. Young is carrying water for Mr. Kennedy. Regardless, the right policy action should be obvious: Reject the Young amendment and allow the Cape Wind project to proceed through the regulatory process in which the Coast Guard is an active participant.

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