In 2001, Jim Gordon, a well-heeled developer of natural gas plants in New England, took up a long-discussed but never-pursued idea that advocates said would usher in a new era of clean energy in America: an ocean-based wind farm off the shores of Cape Cod.
The advantages of the site seemed plain: Relentless, hard-driving winds, shallow shoals several miles offshore on which to anchor large turbines, and, perhaps most importantly, a left-leaning population inclined to support what was already viewed at the time as an overdue migration away from dirtier sources of electricity.
"We have real and looming environmental problems on the horizon," Gordon told reporters that summer, as he prepared to apply for the necessary federal and state permits. "Is this going to solve these problems? No. But it is going to help."
Almost 12 years later, the now 59-year-old Gordon, who graduated from Boston University during the 1970s oil crises with a degree in communications and, he says, vague designs on film school before he set his sights on the energy business, is still pressing his case. Not a single turbine is in the water.
Acquiring the full array of government permits and sign-offs — a byzantine process involving dozens of sometimes overlapping, often contradictory agencies, hundreds of officials and thousands of pages of impact statements — took over a decade. And more than a dozen lawsuits, citing everything from potential disruption of whale and bird migrations to interference with airplane and shipping traffic, the wrecking of commercial fishing grounds and the desecration of sacred Native American sites, have thrown sand in the project's gears at every turn.
Virtually all of the opposition suits over the years have been rejected ultimately by the courts, but at least four more are still pending, and opponents promise to keep fighting.
To be sure, as the first proposed offshore wind project in the United States, Cape Wind, as it is called, was bound to encounter unique scrutiny, and like any undertaking of its size, it is not without environmental impacts. But the long-thwarted wind farm also highlights what some critics say has become a bloated and overly complicated regulatory maze through which fewer and fewer project developers of any kind have the wherewithal to navigate.
Indeed, while it has earned the backing of virtually every major environmental group — including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and others — the government's unhurried review of the project cost tens of millions of dollars more than it would have in countries with more streamlined permitting processes. And even now, Cape Wind remains stuck in a briar patch of legal challenges to its siting, mostly filed by a small but determined coalition of local residents and unusually wealthy property owners in the area who have no incentive to relent.
It is a dilemma that developers of major infrastructure projects know all too well, and one that some critics say is in dire need of reform. "There has to be a better way," said Matthew Brown, an attorney with Common Good, a nonpartisan group seeking ways to overhaul governmental and legal systems to streamline the approval or rejection of major projects of all kinds. "It shows just exactly how far away from the purposes of the process the actual reality has come," Brown said, "because environmental review, and the lawsuits attending it, now actively thwart environmentally positive projects like Cape Wind."
During his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama declared that, "for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," and he promised to "speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy." But just what an idealized project-permitting system might look like — for clean energy or any major infrastructure project — remains a matter of debate. Environmental and citizen groups are understandably loath to limit access to the courts, or to overhaul a regulatory machinery that, for all of its messiness, affords them a good deal of leverage against deep-pocketed developers of far more menacing projects than Cape Wind.
And while the Nantucket wind farm appears to be nearing the end of its own legal and regulatory limbo, it still remains too soon to say with any certainty when — or even if — the project will be built.
This, critics say, needs to change.
"I can't think of anything more benign in terms of impact than an offshore wind farm, compared to our other energy choices," said Gordon, who estimates that he has spent at least $65 million working through the regulatory hurdles and fighting lawsuits. "I think that within a certain time frame, maybe having a one-stop agency where the cooperating agencies kind of put in their concern, and the public goes before it and — we should absolutely have public hearings. We have had an extraordinary amount of public hearings on this project. And written comments. That shouldn't stop. All I'm saying is that there needs to be a reasonable time frame for an up or down decision.
Twelve years and counting, Gordon added, is simply too long for any project to sit on the drawing board while regulators and on-the-ground stakeholders squabble over details. "Most projects and most developers that would get involved in a process like that would probably throw up their arms and walk away," he said. "And for some worthy projects, that would be a shame."
Kickstarting an Industry
On a blustery, early winter day, with a cold, driving rain pelting the windshield, Cape Wind's longtime spokesman, Mark Rodgers, eases his car into an empty parking lot at Cape Cod's Craigville Beach in Centerville, Mass. The hamlet is about 3 miles southwest of Hyannis and located midway along the tricep of the cape, a long, narrow peninsula that stretches out into the Atlantic and then curls up and back, like the flexed arm of a swaggering bodybuilder.
Rodgers takes a spot facing due south, into the great emptiness of Nantucket Sound.