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Will Obama Save Offshore Wind Power--or Kill It?

Wendy Williams is co-author of Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future.

Cape Wind has long been the problem child of the nation's push for renewable energy—and it could end up being one of Barack Obama's biggest energy headaches in his first term, one that may decide the future of offshore wind power in the United States. The Cape Wind project was proposed just before September 11, 2001, and calls for 130 3.6-megawatt wind turbines, sitting five miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts (map here). All told, the wind turbines would provide 75 percent of the Cape's electricity and obviate the use of the peninsula's 40-year-old dirty oil-fired power plant, one of the state's worst polluters.

But even though a majority of the state's residents and politicians, including Governor Deval Patrick, support the project, it's been held up by a handful of wealthy and well-connected elites. Chief among opponents is Ted Kennedy, whose relentless opposition to the Cape Wind project was recently called "Ahab-like" by the Boston Globe, but foes also include House Democrats like Bill Delahunt (who represents Cape Cod) and Nick Rahall of West Virginia. These opponents have raised any number of issues—from a potential decrease in coastal property values to the potentially adverse effects on commercial and sport fishing. In some cases, the objection is personal: "That's where I sail!" Kennedy famously complained.

Over the past seven years, Cape Wind has undergone two separate multimillion-dollar environmental impact statements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS). Both studies, running several thousand pages apiece, have given the project a relatively clean bill of health. And, finally, after a long series of pitched political fights that raged through 2005 and 2006, the Kennedy family appeared to have grudgingly accepted that the project was inevitable (even if they remained opposed in principle). All that remained, it seemed, was for MMS to release its final environmental impact statement last month, which would've allowed the Bush administration to issue construction permits.

But at the last minute, Democrat James Oberstar, the normally progressive chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and asked him to delay the MMS statement, citing navigational safety issues. In a follow-up letter, Oberstar stated that he was considering hearings on safety issues concerning all offshore wind projects. (Offshore wind turbines have been operating in Europe for more than a decade without a single navigational incident.) Later, Kennedy aides admitted that they'd been in contact with Oberstar.

Oberstar's position was countered by Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman and retiring Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who sit atop the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The two urged Interior to move ahead with Cape Wind "in an expeditious manner." But the Interior Department hasn't given a date for the release of the environmental impact statement, and now at least six other large-scale offshore wind projects in the United States are flagging, due to the Cape Wind stalemate. Cape Wind developers and advocates now fear that, if the Bush administration doesn't release the MMS statement, Obama officials could require yet another environmental impact report, which would take years and many millions more dollars. What's more, even if Kempthorne does release MMS's impact report by next week, the permitting won't be finalized until the new administration.

So that's where Obama comes in. If MMS hasn't released its report by the time he takes office, he'd have two options: He could send a message to the new agency heads telling them to release the document quickly—or, he could allow the Cape Wind permitting process to languish. What action the new administration might take remains unclear. During his campaign, Obama promised to take action to "catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future," and approving the Cape Wind project would get the ball rolling on offshore wind projects. On the other hand, Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy family played a critical role in helping Obama get elected. While there's no overt evidence that any of the Kennedys have spoken to Obama about Cape Wind, given the family's relentless lobbying against the project, it's reasonable to expect that a direct request for yet another delay will be made—if it hasn't been already.

The stakes are certainly high: The Energy Department estimates that 900,000 megawatts of potential wind energy sit more than five nautical miles off the coasts of the United States; 98,000 megawatts of that lies over shallow water, which means that it could be harnessed using existing technology to deliver carbon-free power to the nation's electric grids. But since Cape Wind was first proposed—and subsequently stalled—not one offshore wind project has been built in U.S. waters, making this seemingly never-ending battle one to watch closely in the coming months.

--Wendy Williams