Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wind buffets Vineyard

On Sunday night over 100 people packed the Community Center in Chilmark, Mass. (on Martha's Vineyard island) to participate in a forum labeled by the sponsors, an outfit named POINT, "The Islands' Future: Blowin' in the Wind." POINT describes itself as "an environmental group dedicated to promoting conservation, education and sound choices for a sustainable environment."

Under this map showing where wind turbines will be situated off the islands, several speakers described a history of state and federal government failure to consult with locals in the planning, permitting, siting and design of proposed ocean wind farms. Notably:
  • Former 20-year member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives Eric Turkington described a legislative process that enabled a remote state commission to designate the state water areas that would be used for commercial energy without local input. He warned that a similar bill enabling land-based commercial wind turbine farms might very well move forward at any time.
  • A West Tisbury selectman, Richard Knabel, described the refusal of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to meet with a delegation from all six island town governments. He described the current plan as involving "brute force tactics," "a blunderbuss approach," "massive arrogance." and above all as a failure of process.
  • Chilmark selectman Warren Doty who is also president of the Martha's Vineyard/ Duke's County Fishermen's Association (MV/DCFA) described that group's frustration with the lack of answers fishermen are getting about what large wind farm installations will mean. How much fishing will be inhibited or prohibited? Federal estimates of loss of catch have seemed laughable to these locals. Doty pointed out that the power companies want to build their hundreds of towers in these areas because they have relatively shallow bottoms; that same shallow depth serves as a good environment for fish, so naturally the commercial boats want to be able to work in them. The MV/DCFA has sued for answers to these questions about the Cape Wind site that the Federal government has already approved.
  • There was much more, including a speaker from the Wampanoag nation, a federally acknowledged tribe whose trust lands are located in the Vineyard town of Gay Head, just opposite one of the wind farm sites.
What did not happen was a broadly multi-party gubernatorial candidate accountability session such as the organizers had evidently hoped to put on. Incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick has put his administration on the side of commercial development of ocean wind farms; he sent no representative. Independent challenger Tim Cahill did not show, so Republican Charlie Baker had the floor to himself. (I can't report his remarks since we left early.)

I went into the forum a supporter of wind farms -- and came out the same way. But I learned a great deal. Some thoughts and some conundrums:
  • It's not good enough to dismiss these wind farm opponents as privileged NIMBYs. These are people who have worked for sensible sustainable environmental policies for a long time. In order to preserve the land and seas they live on, they are willing to study the science and search for solutions. And talk, and talk, and talk. They naturally want to adhere to the precautionary principle: when we don't know what bad impacts may arise from new developments, proponents should be held to a high standard of proof of harmlessness.
  • Industrial scale wind farms are still new technology. We've just seen how that worked with impossibly deep, unknowably risky, oil drilling in the the Gulf. And the supervising agency for the wind projects was the notorious Minerals Management Service, since the BP gusher rechristened as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Let's hope this is more than a name change.
  • Corporate developers confidently will spend millions pushing aside local concerns when some of the technical kinks have been worked out and visions of big profits dangle invitingly before them. The Massachusetts wind farms bring this energy technology to a scale not yet attempted on this continent. There will be costs as well as benefits. The corporations that will make money on wind energy expect society to absorb these unknown (though possibly predictable) costs and let them have the cash gains.
  • Wind farms built at the scale the federal and Massachusetts governments have accepted will turn over what has been a commons, a public resource, the seas, to private enterprise with very little expectation of mitigation of harms. This development is of a piece with more and more privatization and exploitation of the oceans as the sheer number of human demands on them rise. To the (relative) little guys, that suggests some caution.
  • Islanders may be reaping corporate blowback from the nine year Cape Cod fight (that included Kennedys) against the Cape Wind project now approved in federal waters. Energy companies figured out they needed pre-emptive legal action from state bodies that were more insulated from local concerns than local governments -- so they put their lobbying into getting favorable state laws to take smaller jurisdictions out of the picture. This strategy seems to be prevailing.
  • The discussion of the wind farms throws a fascinating light on the class contradictions on Martha's Vineyard. In the winter there are some 15000 residents, (mostly) scratching out a living as small town professionals serving each other, as farmers, and as seafarers. In the summer months there are some 100,000 people vacationing here, many very well off indeed, including both recent Democratic presidents. It's the year-round residents (mostly) who are trying to rein in the wind farms; they know that part of what makes this place work is its authentic culture of relatively small fishing and farming that delights the annual infusion of beach-going tourists. Besides, they like their way of life, thank you very much. And they are New Englanders, accustomed to a participatory form of local government by town meeting, the antithesis of state and federal interference. By the way, for all their crustiness, these folks seem to be mostly liberal or libertarian Democrats.
As I said, I was not talked out of thinking wind energy captured over the oceans has to be part of our post-carbon-fuels future. But last night's forum gave the issues involved a texture that had been missing from this outlander's thinking. Thanks POINT.

Wind power is not a novelty. This small scale windmill produces some amount of electricity on a farm in Chilmark. The Vineyard fight over wind energy is about scale and democratic local governance.

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