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Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound
By Wendy Williams
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Cape Wind is a rollicking tale of democracy in action and plutocracy in the raw as played out among colorful and glamorous characters on one of our country’s most historic and renowned pieces of coastline. As steeped in American history and local color as The Prince of Providence; as biting, revealing and fun as Philistines at the Hedgerow, it is also a cautionary tale about how money can hijack democracy while America lags behind the rest of the developed world in adopting clean energy.
From Bob, To Nancy
For Jane, Denley Ann and Brett and Jenny, Abby Jane and Niki and Neily
I, your servant, will build a mill which does not require water, but which is powered by wind alone.
LEONARDO DA VINCI
A “PUBLIC” MEETING
Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa!
December 6, 2004 Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts
David McCullough’s face contorted with anger. “It’s outrageous!” he yelled. He sounded like anyone but the mellow, well-measured man of letters who narrated tales of American history on national television. Indeed, the popular author sounded quite overwrought.
Nantucket Sound, he shouted, is “hallowed ground.” He had uttered that phrase before, as the narrator of Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary aired on public television. This time, however, he was sounding his own battle cry, crowing his promotion to general in the seaside civil war, a war that had become an internationally watched conflict over the future of energy and of America’s air, coasts, and oceans.
On this late-fall evening, as the sky spit a chilly mixture of snow and sleet, McCullough’s big voice filled the high school auditorium lobby on Martha’s Vineyard, an island favored by movie stars, politicians, the international jet set, authors, and other glitterati.
He continued his mini oration, “This is a preservation issue. It’s not an environmental issue.”
McCullough, surrounded by a small circle of admirers, had just walked out of the first of a group of four public hearings called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a proposal to build a large electrical-generation project in the middle of a body of water known as Nantucket Sound. Cape Wind Associates, a limited liability company, wanted to place a vast field of wind turbines out in the salt water. The turbines would, said the developers, produce enough clean electricity to satisfy a considerable proportion of Cape Cod’s needs. Indeed, on rare occasions, the project would supply all the necessary electricity, obviating the consumption of fossil fuels.
Over the three years the battle had raged, McCullough’s opposition to the project had become common knowledge around Cape Cod and the wealthy islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, in part because of a highly emotional radio advertisement he had recorded that excoriated the project.
Rarely, however, did McCullough appear at public meetings about the wind farm. Indeed, like so many of the beautiful people engineering the public show of fury over Cape Wind, the television star and author preferred controlled, closed-door situations. Tonight, though, after refusing a request for a formal interview, he sputtered on.
“This is visual pollution,” he complained. He was unable to stop talking. As he and his entourage departed the building, the sentences trailed after him, like leaves blowing in a high wind.
David McCullough voiced his opposition to Cape Wind from the earliest days of the seaside civil war.
Cape Wind, the brain child of a small group of innovative energy developers, first made headlines in the summer of 2001, only weeks before September 11. The first adamant public opposition surfaced less than a month after the World Trade Center disaster. Cape Wind president Jim Gordon, a fiercely driven and ardently independent man who had made millions during his thirty-year career as an energy entrepreneur, had initially proposed erecting 170 towering wind turbines five miles off the Cape’s southern coast. During the course of the battle, as offshore wind technology improved, the number of turbines had dropped to 130, but the output of the individual turbines had grown considerably, from 2.8 to 3.6 megawatts each. The project’s resultant “nameplate capacity” would have been 468 megawatts, quite large for a wind farm. The project’s typical output, however, would have been rather less, since wind turbines only rarely operate at full capacity.
Because Nantucket Sound’s winds often blow best when electricity is needed most, during the frigid wintertime when fossil-fuel costs are high or on hot summer days when Cape Cod’s many 7,000-square-foot shoreline homes have their air conditioners pumping hard, an ocean-based wind farm seemed to Gordon an obvious solution to New England’s power-generation dilemma. Lacking indigenous fossil fuels, the region suffered extremely high electricity prices. Moreover, much of the region’s electrical generation was aged, inefficient, and consequently highly polluting.
Because New England’s coastal regions are already so overdeveloped, little space remained for land-based wind projects. Building offshore seemed an obvious solution to the crisis. Nevertheless, Gordon, a wildcatter, had shocked the region by proposing the massive project. Although offshore wind had a successful ten-year history in Europe, the projects to date had been relatively small-scale. Nothing this ambitious had been built, although several proposed projects far exceeded the size suggested for Nantucket Sound.
Gordon was undeterred. Ebullient and confident, he believed his project would pay off financially while also cutting down on fossil-fuel emissions. From Gordon’s point of view, the region would be trading a small area of the ocean, used mostly for recreational sailing and saltwater fishing, for cleaner air and a leadership role in clean-energy innovation.
Cape Cod’s powerful elite saw things differently. To them, Gordon and his team were interlopers. The same winds that had enticed Gordon to gamble his millions had, as early as the nineteenth century, enticed large flocks of the wealthy to nest along the Cape’s hitherto rather neglected southern shoreline. By the time Cape Wind made headlines, the area of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard had become a devil’s triangle of entrenched, often inherited, wealth. Those seashore homeowners had come to see Nantucket Sound as their very own playground.
Few Americans will ever literally see Nantucket Sound. Most of its beaches are intentionally closed to the public, who are instead directed further toward Cape Cod’s eastern end, to the national seashore that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Still, many Americans have “seen” Nantucket Sound on television. These are the waters enjoyed by Jack and Jackie Kennedy, who sailed out from the summer capital of their brief Camelot—Hyannisport. The carefully orchestrated, nationally broadcast images showing the romantic young couple sailing their elegant little boat across the glittering waves brought about the end of “quaint” Cape Cod. Already drowning in money, the southern shoreline, now made famous by the Kennedy family, was swamped by a storm-surge of development.
Today, much of Cape Cod is a highly commercial, Disneyesque version of what was once a very lovely seaside area. Along the south shore and on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, colonies of the rich and the hyperrich flourish as never before—not just multimillion-dollar folk, but really rich people—such as Jack Welch, once leader of General Electric; Paul Fireman of Reebok; Douglas Yearley, longtime chairman of Phelps Dodge mining and board member of Marathon Oil Corporation; and William Koch, inheritor of money from Koch Industries, a massive, privately held energy company heavily into fossil fuels. Like Fidelity’s Abigail Johnson, ranked America’s twelfth richest person in 2005 by Forbes magazine, some represent financial money. Some, like Koch, come from purely industrial wealth. Many, like the Mellons and the DuPonts and the Kennedys, have been there for decades. During the summer, Nantucket Sound can be a busy crossroads—except on Horseshoe Shoal, where Gordon wanted to put his wind farm. There, with only a few feet of water at low tide, it’s too shallow for most yachts.
While McCullough fulminated in the lobby, a Category 5 hurricane raged inside the tiny auditorium. The Corps’ hearing was supposed to be a kind of New England town meeting, allowing the public to comment on a 3,800-page, $10 million Environmental Impact Statement, three years in the making. Speakers, whether just local homeowners or world-renowned scientists, could come to the microphone to discuss the document’s content. Hearings like this are usually routine, tedious, and filled with coma-inducing facts and statistics, leading the junior reporters stuck covering them to wonder how early they can leave without jeopardizing their jobs.
Tonight, though, a treat awaited the bored press corps. The hearing had been hijacked. Science, statistics, and facts were no longer on the agenda. For that, reporters could thank U.S. Congressman William Delahunt, his longtime aide and political fixer, Mark Forest, and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a shadowy group claiming environmental credentials but backed big time by fossil-fuel investors, members of the animal rights crowd, an ancient arbitress of high society, several Bush Pioneers, an athletic-shoe maker, high-tech moguls, investment bankers, real-estate developers, and a long list of donation-savvy politicians.
Heading up the Alliance and bearing the mighty title of Chief Executive Officer was mining and fossil-fuel baron Douglas Yearley, who owned a $6.8-million, 7,700-square-foot house on Nantucket Sound. From his property he would easily see the wind turbines on clear days—a prospect that “offended” Yearley, according to his public-relations man.
To the casual observer it might have appeared as if Vineyard residents were unusually interested in the wind-farm issue, but in fact the Alliance had shipped over many meeting-goers via boats. Arriving at the high school, these ringers huddled in lobby corners before the meeting, waiting to be coached in the art of meeting manipulation by Susan Nickerson, the $90,000-a-year Alliance Executive Director, and Ernie Corrigan, her well-paid hatchet man.
Other Alliance workers, a few of whom had been added to the payroll for just this occasion, barked out orders. Some handed out free bottles of water and cupcakes with red-and-green sprinkles, along with glossy Save Our Sound fliers. Some deluged the speakers’ sign-up table, trying to get in early in order to monopolize the registration and speaker list, overwhelming the harried and stunned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees. Beleaguered Corps staff even had to fend off insistent efforts by some Alliance supporters to combine the times scheduled to be allocated among several speakers so that one wind-farm foe could make a major speech.
Outside the auditorium, in the chilly dark, other Alliance importees enthusiastically chanted, “The Sound is not for sale!” Paid staffers carried signs. Little round stickers on their coats and sweaters also cried out Not for Sale! When these people spoke at the microphone, many would provide their names but not their addresses, giving the impression that they were island locals instead of imports.
Strutting around like a ringmaster was the Alliance’s PR czar, Ernie Corrigan, dressed jovially in pre-Christmas red shirt and green tie. Corrigan, a beefy man with a thick shock of graying hair and a belly just beginning to hang out over his belt, was, as a younger man, a reporter for the nearby New Bedford Standard Times. For a short while he covered the Massachusetts State House for a chain of small dailies owned by Dow Jones. Then, fancying himself a kingmaker, he began managing small-time elections around the state.
Corrigan looked in his element as he directed and hovered, chatted with journalists, and whispered into his cell phone. He glad-handed as if his life depended on it. He was the picture of energy, a man in command.
This was fun to watch, but it was really just a sideshow to the evening’s pièce de résistance: the presence of the Honorable William Delahunt, the white-haired U.S. congressman whose district included the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, as well as towns and cities closer to Boston, like working-class Quincy, whence Delahunt hailed. Delahunt hated the wind farm. Or, at least, he said he hated it. Delahunt was widely seen as Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s man. What Ted Kennedy hated, Bill Delahunt hated. And Ted Kennedy loathed Cape Wind, with an unwavering ardor that curiously belied the environmental ideals he so often proclaimed from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Nantucket Sound, Delahunt repeated, is a “precious resource.”
Ironically, Delahunt was fighting a proposal that promised to help his own economically stressed hometown. One proposed assembly site for the massive wind turbines, whose parts would arrive from all over the globe, was a closed-down Quincy shipyard. The closing of the yard had devastated the city. Its reopening would give unemployed Quincy workers many highly paid jobs.
As his boss raved at the podium, Delahunt aide Mark Forest, known in the district as “the Little Congressman” for his longtime political reign on Cape Cod and the Islands, leaned against the auditorium entranceway. He watched as Delahunt took the podium and delivered nearly verbatim the lines he’d been delivering for three years. “Nantucket Sound is not our backyard, it is our front!” the white-haired congressman shouted.
“It is not just a view for those living and working on the water,” he continued. “It is an economic engine. It is the heart and soul of our region. . . . Cape Wind does not own Horseshoe Shoal. Cape Wind has no right to use it and the Congress of the United States has . . . not dealt with the problem.”
For most of the 300,000 or so locals who lived in the area but who rarely visited Nantucket Sound, the fact that this particular body of saltwater was the region’s “heart and soul” was news indeed. To many, the exaggeration sounded simply silly. Nevertheless, project opponents, including the Alliance’s evening immigrants from the Cape and the mainland, cheered and clapped repeatedly.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is a public resource, that the waters and the seabed are owned by the American people,” Delahunt continued.
Then began the requisite listing of useful environmental icons: whales, seals, birds, fish, and so on, whose existence the wind farm supposedly threatened.
“This is a public resource, owned by the American people, by the U.S.A.,” he said, tripping over his own lines.
The congressman’s face reddened. Like old Cotton Mather warming to his subject of sin, Delahunt’s fiery ardor mounted. He curled his fists and began a bit of podium pounding. This time, Delahunt had decided, Jim Gordon, the man who refused to go away, would finally realize it was time to throw in the towel.
The congressman, a former prosecutor, promised “endless litigation”—“nothing will get done”—if the Army Corps of Engineers gave its approval to Cape Wind.
Forest, a small man who’d spent the whole of his political career on Cape Cod, was still leaning against the auditorium entranceway wall. His arms were folded, as usual. He was trying to keep his face passive, although a certain shine to his eyes betrayed his satisfaction at having maneuvered his boss up onto the stage.
Asked if Delahunt’s words were meant as threats intended to deter Gordon from continuing to press his case, Forest edged away. “Speculation,” the fixer answered curtly.
Delahunt’s control of the podium was unusual. Every other speaker had to use a floor microphone and was limited to three minutes. To maintain discipline, a very large traffic light turned first a warning yellow and then a time’s-up red. Delahunt, however, assumed he was exempted from the burden laid upon the rest of the hearing’s participants.
Blindsided by the congressman’s performance, project supporters—and there were plenty on Martha’s Vineyard, despite the Alliance’s efforts—were miffed. How had this politico gained control of what they thought was to be a “public”—as in, for the public—hearing, an opportunity for thoughtful and informed people to add their insights to the discussion? (In fact, Forest had forced Army Corps officials to bow to Delahunt’s coup d’état. Had the Corps refused, the congressman could have taken out his revenge when appropriation votes came up on Capitol Hill.)
As the scale of the Alliance ambush became clear, project proponents, scattered throughout the crowd, looked more and more confused. Matt Palmer and the Reverend William Eddy, cofounders of a nonprofit group supporting Cape Wind called Clean Power Now who had themselves come over for the night from Cape Cod, were babes in the woods when it came to this kind of behavior. The Alliance’s slogan was Save Our Sound, with the emphasis on “our.” Palmer and Eddy had coined their own motto—It’s Not the View, It’s the Vision—directed toward policy rather than possession. Big bucks and political power plays were alien to them. Political innocents, they believed there would, one day, be a reasonable discussion of the project’s merits and that opponents would come to see the light.
At a U.S. Army Corps public meeting on Cape Wind, project supporters from Cape Cod let the world know that the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound isn’t the only game in town.
Listening to Delahunt, that seemed doubtful.
Jim Gordon, the fifty-one-year-old target of this tempest, sat quietly by himself in the midst of the crowd, almost unnoticed. Over the course of the three years, Gordon had tried to perfect the art of public aplomb, but as Delahunt pounded the podium, Gordon began to scowl. The scowl deepened and darkened as the evening progressed. A careful observer could tell when Gordon was feeling hard-pressed. Always a man who sat ramrod straight, he sat even straighter with each of Delahunt’s personal insults. From time to time he worked his jaw forcefully, trying to remain impassive.
Throughout the battle, he had heard similar rhetoric, some of it harshly personal. He’d been belittled, called names, sneered at as “a Boston developer,” and repeatedly maligned as “greedy.” His staff had been physically threatened. Articles intended to destroy his business reputation had appeared in the local daily newspaper. He’d been dragged through the court system to the tune of more than a million dollars. His supporters had been verbally attacked. In some cases, their careers had been threatened.
Although he struggled not to show it, this was deeply painful to Gordon. After nearly thirty years in the energy business, the man was no stranger to aggressive behavior, but a small part of him had genuinely believed that New Englanders—even Cape Codders—would welcome his proposal. Instead, he’d encountered a level of viciousness that went far beyond normal business tactics. Gordon had always been a rough-and-tumble guy, but to stay in the seaside civil war he’d had to grow an ever thicker skin. Yet despite plenty of opportunity to take on other projects, he’d refused to quit. Quite possibly, he just didn’t know how.
Project opponents had missed a key aspect of Gordon’s personality. For this man, money was a motive—but not the only motive. He was a businessman, but he was also a talented leader and team builder, a change agent and a groundbreaker. He saw himself as a man who freed good ideas from their Ivory Tower encasement and made them manifest. Three years of public excoriation had served only to deepen his determination. By the time of the Martha’s Vineyard hearing, Jim Gordon, energy entrepreneur, had become a man on a mission.
Indeed, over the coming several years, Gordon would increasingly appear to be leading, for better or for worse, a crusade. At one point, several years in the future, while rallying his troops on the island of Nantucket during the height of a battle over legislation Kennedy tried to sneak through Congress, this multimillionaire builder of power plants would thrust his right hand up into the air and shout: “This is the way revolutions start!” He would come a long way from being just a power-plant guy.
But for now, for the time being, while listening to Delahunt rant, Gordon kept to himself. To those who didn’t know him, he appeared frustratingly stolid, almost as though he had something to hide. Throughout the course of the battle, enraged wind-farm opponents had asked him over and over in public meetings, with increasing anger and impatience: Why are you still here?
And for the past three years, this self-made man and child of the 1960s had just shrugged his shoulders, chanted his mantra of “clean, renewable energy,” and kept on truckin’.
The Alliance’s parade of carefully scripted opponents lined up to play to the television crews, including one from Tokyo. Foes repeated the sound bites that Corrigan and other hired guns had made up so long ago. Gordon felt more disappointed than angry. Like so many others, including many of the undecided, he had yearned for an end to the political theater and for a fact-based debate.
That conversation wasn’t to happen that evening. After Delahunt’s performance was over, it became obvious to those who had expected a hearing packed with content that they’d been naïve. It seemed that the three long years of study and science, of trying to trust the democratic process, of hoping that the truth would come out, had been futile. These public hearings, paid for by taxpayers, had, like so many of the earlier ones, been reduced to little more than an expensive opportunity for political hit men to grab the podium and prove to their moneyed supporters that they were sticking up for them.
Yet even as Delahunt rallied his troops from the hijacked podium, the lawmaker neglected to address the issue at hand, the real-life reason for the public hearing—the Environmental Impact Statement assembled by the Corps. Par for the course, thought Gordon, who believed that the report itself had been positive for his project. No one had come up with any science-based reason that the project shouldn’t be built. There had been no substantive safety concerns, no evidence that endangered species would be harmed or that the environment would be damaged, no real roadblocks of any kind. A variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations had asked for more information on several matters, as was typical, but the project on the whole seemed to have been given a scientific thumbs-up.
By evening’s end, one thing was clear: This melodrama—Corrigan strutting in his Christmas best, Forest hovering around the edges, Delahunt vehemently pounding the podium, Ted Kennedy’s influence ever felt but never seen—was a very well-orchestrated show whose paymasters had immense resources. It was all very much in keeping with the previous three years, during which the Alliance had been engaged big time in creating a parallel universe, a virtual reality, their own Hollywood storyline, about Gordon’s project, about Nantucket Sound, and about the environmental and energy issues facing Cape Cod, New England, and all of America.
Reporters had fun for a while that evening, but upon reflection, some were saddened. The hearing was supposed to be an opportunity for public discourse and an expression of democracy at the local level. Instead, it had been hijacked and turned into a publicity stunt. While wrapping themselves in the mantle of democracy, the Nantucket Sound affluent were behaving as though they owned the government.
Jim Gordon’s big idea was bold, breathtaking, even brash, just the sort of project that used to be associated with American entrepreneur-ship. But it was getting harder to introduce such ideas in a nation that had become increasingly dominated by an entrenched plutocracy that had little, if any, sense of national or global responsibility. America used to be a nation of bold ideas, but by the twenty-first century, some had begun to wonder whether genuine visionaries might do better in some other nation.
When a democratic process could be sold like this to the highest bidder, and when a U.S. congressman was present to do the honors, what did this mean for the future of America? A few of those present that evening found the symbolism of the event frightening, given the dangerous realities of the new millennium. Energy prices were steadily rising. Regular people were having trouble paying their bills. Climate change seemed to be under way. Oil and gas were in short supply and developing nations were eager to have all that electricity could provide, from lightbulbs to computers.
Somehow, somewhere, sometime soon, these challenges were going to have to be addressed—by someone willing to take the lead. Delahunt was funny, several reporters agreed, but many Americans didn’t seem to be in the mood for such shenanigans.
“Nero’s fiddle,” muttered a journalist watching the show.
How had it come to this?
JIM GORDON’S BIG IDEA
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2007
- Page Count
- 352 pages