TWO NANTUCKET RESIDENTS, backed by a network of think tanks and beachfront property owners along the East Coast, set in motion what appears to be a Cape Wind strategy for derailing the nation’s first industrial-size offshore wind farm and others that are lining up behind it.
Vallorie Oliver, a home designer on Nantucket, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking to block construction of Vineyard Wind until federal regulatory agencies can assure the safety of North Atlantic Right Whales and other endangered species. She and Mary Chalke, a physical therapist and the co-director of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, said their priority is protecting the right whale, but also indicated they oppose the industrialization of the ocean off of Nantucket with turbines close to 900-feet tall.
“Can you think of a worse place to put the first-in-the-nation, largest-in-the-world wind power plant?” Chalke asked. “We are playing Russian roulette with our environment.”
David Stevenson, policy director at the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute, a “nonprofit committed to protecting individual liberty,” joined Oliver and Chalke at the press conference in front of the State House. He said he is helping to coordinate a fundraising operation for the Vineyard Wind lawsuit and other wind farms that may follow elsewhere along the coast, reaching out to individuals and groups up and down the coast who are opposed to offshore wind for a variety of reasons. He said $70,000 has been raised so far and the immediate goal is $500,000. He said the names of donors will not be disclosed.
The website of the fundraising operation, the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, indicates the goal is to push wind farms farther out from the coast or ban them entirely. “The overall objective of the fund and other ACOP activities is to at least create a permanent offshore wind exclusion zone to 33 miles off the entire eastern seaboard of the United States,” the website says. “Given the premium cost of offshore wind, the likely abandonment of commercial fishing in any lease area, and the negative impacts on marine life, we expect no suitable lease area will be found anywhere off the East Coast.”
Paul Craney of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance showed up at the Wednesday press conference. He said he is personally supportive of what the Nantucket residents and the Caesar Rodney Institute are doing but his organization hasn’t signed on in any formal capacity.
The still-emerging game plan against Vineyard Wind appears to be strikingly similar to the game plan used by opponents of Cape Wind close to a decade ago. Cape Wind aspired to be the nation’s first offshore wind farm, but it ran into a relentless legal attack by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a nonprofit supported with more than $5 million from billionaire William Koch, whose biggest concern was that the turbines would spoil the view from his Osterville compound.
Koch’s strategy was simple. “One is to just delay, delay, delay, which we’re doing and hopefully we can win some of these bureaucrats over,” Koch said in a 2013 interview with CommonWealth. “The other way is to elect politicians who understand how foolhardy alternative energy is.”
The litigation delays scared away investors and cost Cape Wind its power contracts with Eversource and National Grid in 2015. A year later, after a regulatory snub by the Baker administration, Beacon Hill delivered the final blow, passing new offshore wind legislation that barred Cape Wind from competing for new contracts. The hope was that moving offshore wind projects out of Nantucket Sound and farther offshore would defuse opposition to them.
In 2017, Cape Wind developer Jim Gordon finally threw in the towel after investing close to 10 years and $100 million of his personal money in the project.
Will what happened to Cape Wind happen now to Vineyard Wind and the other wind farm projects lining up behind it?
The context for offshore wind in 2021 is very different from what it was in 2015. The Baker administration, which back then was skeptical about the cost of Cape Wind, is now totally supportive of offshore wind, which is central to the administration’s effort to decarbonize the state’s economy.
The Biden administration, for similar reasons, is also on board. Former president Donald Trump’s administration delayed action on Vineyard Wind for several years while it studied the potential impact of wind farms up and down the cost, but once President Biden was elected Washington bureaucracy did an about face and quickly pushed Vineyard Wind across the regulatory finish line.
Oliver said the Biden administration’s quick approval of the project is one of the reasons she’s filing her lawsuit. She said the federal regulatory agencies she is suing failed to address environmental concerns associated with offshore wind
“It hasn’t been given its due diligence,” she said, calling the environmental impact statement on Vineyard Wind “1,000 pages of insignificant suppositions and a whole lot of let’s wait and see what happens.”
Concerns about the fate of the right whale, whose population is dwindling, are not new. The downturn in the whale population is already happening without any wind farms being built, primarily because the whales are being hit by boats or becoming ensnared in fishing nets.
Still, officials from 17 prominent environmental groups wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service in September 2020 raising concerns that regulators were failing to protect environmentally endangered mammals, including right whales, in their review of offshore wind projects. It’s unclear whether any changes were made in response to the letter; efforts to reach two of the signers were unsuccessful. Erica Fuller of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston did not return calls over a two-day period.
Jake O’Neill, a spokesman for the Conservation Law Foundation, issued a statement saying “climate change presents an existential threat not only to right whales, but entire ecosystems across the globe. Offshore wind is a key element in reducing the emissions that cause climate change and meeting New England’s clean energy goals. We’ve been vigilant in pushing offshore wind developers to ensure that any potential impacts on right whales and other marine life are minimized, and we will continue to do so as more projects are developed.”
A spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, one of the agencies being sued, did not return phone calls. A spokesman for Vineyard Wind also said he would have no comment on pending litigation.
The regulatory approval received by Vineyard Wind requires the company to shut down pile-driving operations near the turbines during times of the year when right whales are active in the area and minimize the noise impact when pile-driving does occur. The approval also requires Vineyard Wind vessels to reduce speed near the turbines and to have spotters on board on the lookout for endangered whales and turtles. The federal environmental impact review concluded the measures being required would result in “negligible” impact on right whales.
Chalke said her concern about Vineyard Wind extends beyond right whales. “What I thought was 84 turbines off our beaches, the actual intent is 2,000 skyscraping turbines covering 2,000 square miles of pristine, unspoiled ocean,” she said, referring to the full buildout of the area.
Stevenson said the visual impact of Vineyard Wind, despite being roughly 15 miles off the coast, remains a concern. He said some members of his group don’t oppose offshore wind but want turbines to be kept at least 30 miles off the coast. “Visual is always the one that gets the attention because oh it’s just a bunch of rich people that don’t want to look at this,” he said. “Let me tell you, there are tens of millions of people who go to the beach all across the East Coast every year and one of things they want is that ocean view.”
Stevenson said other proposed wind farms off the coast of Long Island and Kitty Hawk National Park have been pushed farther out to sea, 30 miles off the coast, because of the visual impact.
“At 15 miles, these things would dominate the horizon,” he said.
Vineyard Wind officials in the past have suggested the turbines would rarely be visible from land. Chalke raised concerns about red lights flashing atop the turbines, illuminating them on the horizon and attracting migratory birds who could be killed. But the federal approval for the project indicates Vineyard Wind is required to install an aircraft detection lighting system, which would turn the flashing lights on only when aircraft are in the area, which is expected to be a rare occurrence.