Spitting into the wind—Part 1

When the news of a proposed windpower project in the waters off Cape Cod broke six years ago, the last thing developer Jim Gordon expected to create was a political tempest of such ferocity that it became the nation’s No. 1 energy hot spot, displacing Alaska’s North Slope in the process.

Clearly, Gordon miscalculated, and the battle royal that ensued—and continues to this day—is chronicled in absorbing fashion in Cape Wind, a new and valuable book that sheds light on the most privileged, if not powerful, opposition group the world has ever seen.

To be fair to Gordon, nobody knew back in the fall of 2001 how Cape Cod’s bluebloods would react to the idea of a wind project located nearby. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it was reasonable to assume that Americans of all socioeconomic stripes would support energy production from domestic renewable resources like wind. Then again, no one before Gordon had the audacity to propose erecting wind turbines, 170 in total, a mere 5-1/2 miles from their seaside Xanadus.

As Gordon soon found out, the Cape and Island elites weren’t about to let this interloper turn their pleasuring grounds into New England’s largest source of clean energy without a fight. Abandoning uppercrust restraint for the kind of overheated language one expects from enraged Muslim clerics, the bluebloods closed ranks and issued a fatwa of sorts against the Cape Wind project. Gordon’s vision was described as “a monster project” that, if built, would irreparably sully “the hallowed ground” that is Nantucket Sound.

To conceal the NIMBY nature of their objections, the more well-heeled among them created an organization called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. But few were fooled by this transparent attempt to spin a grassroots movement out of old money. Anyone hearing the words “save our sound” knew right away that it was the view, not the environment, that needed saving.

As to the advancing tidewrack of malls and trophy homes cluttering the land itself—Cape Cod’s other back yard—these self-described environmentalists have uttered nary a disapproving word.

The plutocratic nature of the Alliance was nicely embodied by its first leader, Doug Yearley, who had recently stepped down from his day job as CEO of Phelps Dodge, the global mining giant, to spend more quality time with his 7,700-square-foot house overlooking Nantucket Sound. Yearley organized the official “coming out” of the Alliance, held at the local yachting club in June 2002, which drew many of his neighbors from Cape Cod’s southern shore. This occasion may mark the only time in human history in which a “grassroots” environmental organization succeeded in raising $4 million before lunch. It was enough of an ante to support several full-time staffers, hire a number of outside consultants, and retain a Washington law firm with a rich history of representing corporate polluters, including Phelps Dodge.

The financial firepower that this opposition group wields is certainly impressive. It has raised and spent $20 million over its six-year history to keep Jim Gordon’s wind turbines out of a body of water Alliance members have come to regard as their own property. But a more powerful weapon than a limitless treasury is political connections, and the Alliance is well stocked with wealthy contributors who have no trouble reaching the most powerful politicians in the land with one well-placed phone call.

Indeed, Cape Wind provides a glimpse into a world few of us know. It is the story of a group of people who believe that their privileged status entitles them to have veto power over a renewable energy project of national significance. This enclave of wealth is the closest thing we have to an aristocracy in this country. The opponents are behaving the same way a duke or duchess would if they perceived any encroachment on their power to control their visual environment. What Jim Gordon found out is that they view Nantucket Sound as an extension of their own domain.

The book nicely captures the class warfare dynamics in this confrontation. Among the most active and generous opponents one finds oil company executives, a Listerine heiress, the top contributor to the Massachusetts Republican Party, and the former owner of Reebok. Not one dime raised by the Alliance came from a fortune connected to renewable energy development.

To the opposition, Gordon’s wind turbines are more than just large mechanical devices viewable from their gated sanctuaries; they are signifiers of new money and ideas muscling in on their territory. Situating something as new-fangled as wind turbines in Nantucket Sound might actually compel the Tom and Daisy Buchanans of Cape Cod into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words in The Great Gatsby.

As far as these wannabe aristocrats are concerned, they got their’s, and the rest of the world be damned. And they are used to getting their way.

Considering how many buttons the Alliance has already pushed to have this project disposed of, Cape Wind is lucky to be alive. The next installment in this series will ruminate on the project’s near-death experience in Congress, orchestrated by Senators Ted Kennedy, whose family vacation compound overlooks Nantucket Sound, and John Warner, who became a Cape Cod blueblood by marrying into the Mellon family. If that episode doesn’t convince you that “all politics is local,” even on the floor of the U.S. Senate, nothing else will.

Sources: Williams, Wendy and Whitcomb, Robert, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, 2007, Public Affairs, New York.

Michael Vickerman is the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. Michael Vickerman’s commentaries also posted on RENEW’s web site: http://www.renewwisconsin.org, RENEW’s blog: http://www.zmetro.com/community/us/wi/madison/renew and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog: http://www.madisonpeakoil-blog.blogspot.com.

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