Skip to main content

Massachusetts Tribes Unhappy With Energy Project

The country’s first offshore wind-energy plant, meant to demonstrate the depth of the Obama administration’s commitment to renewable energy, may also reveal the limits of its dedication to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tribal leaders say the proposed Cape Wind project in Massachusetts’s Nantucket Sound makes a mockery of President Barack Obama’s consultation policy and suggests the administration doesn’t place much value on the Declaration, which the administration endorsed last December.

The project’s other opponents—including state and federal elected officials, local municipalities, chambers of commerce, environmental, fishing, boating and tourism organizations, aviation safety and shipping authorities and even groups promoting offshore wind-energy projects—fear the project will interfere with their activities, devastate Nantucket Sound’s rich biodiversity and harm dozens of significant traditional, cultural, historic and archaeological properties.

Cape Wind is also drawing opposition from several government agencies. The Massachusetts Historical Commission determined last year that the proposed site is a traditional cultural property. The National Park Service said Nantucket Sound is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant traditional, cultural, historic and archaeological property. And last April, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that the Interior Department deny a permit to Cape Wind Associates.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar demanded the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard support the Cape Wind project. When they refused, he terminated the consultation process in March 2010, and went ahead with the project. Cape Wind offered the tribes $1 million each to drop their objections to the project. That offer was rejected unilaterally.

To date, opponents have racked up a dozen legal challenges to the offshore industrial-sized wind factory that Salazar described last April as “beginning a new direction in our nation’s energy future, ushering in America’s first offshore wind-energy facility and opening a new chapter in the history of this region.”

It’s a new direction that the tribes say would destroy a sacred site and destroy cultural traditions they have worked so hard to preserve. Cape Wind’s proposed 130 turbines, towering 440 feet above ocean level and spread across almost 50 square miles of Nantucket Sound, would obliterate the Wampanoags’ unimpeded view of the rising sun that is crucial in a ceremony that is central to their identity, and destroy the ocean bed that was once dry land, where their ancestors lived and died. The project also includes plans for a 10-story electrical service platform with 40,000 gallons of transformer oil and 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel and a helicopter pad, a 66.5-mile submarine transmission-cable system, and two 115-kilovolt lines totaling 25 miles connecting to the mainland power grid. The wind installation would be as close as five miles offshore.

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires, among other things, that nation states seek the “free, prior and informed consent” of indigenous people before effecting any changes on their lands and resources. It also asserts the right of those peoples “to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.”

But these requirements are being disregarded, said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, who came away from a consultation on the adoption of the Declaration at the State Department last fall shaking her head in disappointment at the official attitude. “I said, ‘What is the Declaration really going to do for tribes?’ I raised the question of the Cape Wind project, in which the tribal rights to our traditional cultural property and values were not given the weight they should have been. And one of the State Department representatives said, ‘Well, that’s really unfortunate going forward.” Andrews-Maltais said she responded: “?‘Going forward?’ I said, ‘Going forward means nothing if the Declaration is not respected. If we tell the rest of the world how they should be treating their indigenous peoples, why is it not being applied domestically?’ They didn’t have an answer for that.”

In February, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound appealed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions permit for the proposed Cape Wind project, arguing that the permit the agency approved in January was based on outdated information and should be revisited. The EPA issued the permit based on Cape Wind’s plan to do staging working in North Kensington, Rhode Island, but the company now plans to do that work on the waterfront in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Alliance is a nonprofit grassroots organization that acts as the umbrella for all the groups and individuals opposing the Cape Wind project. “Cape Wind can’t change something as basic as its staging area without going back and addressing that as part of its permit,” said Alliance Executive Director Audra Parker. The appeal automatically halts the permit, which means the project is stalled until this matter is resolved.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Parker said the relocation of the staging area is typical of what she calls the project’s “bait and switch” tactics. “It points to the types of gaping inaccuracies and contradictions that the permit and this entire project are riddled with,” Parker said. “Basic facts surrounding the project have changed significantly since it was first announced, including issuance of a 46-square-mile lease, almost double the 25-square-mile-project size evaluated by federal and state agencies; a switch in supplier from American-made General Electric offshore wind turbines to Siemens turbines; and an alarming $4 billion increase in electric bills to Massachusetts residential and commercial consumers despite earlier claims by Cape Wind of lower electric costs.”
The power purchase agreement sealed last spring calls for Cape Wind to sell half of the power it would generate—a buyer for the other half hasn’t been found yet—to National Grid, a private company that sells energy in the Northeast, for 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) with a 3.5 percent increase each year, bringing the cost to what Parker called, “an astounding 30 cents per kWh by the end of the 15-year license.” Massachusetts’s consumers paid nine cents per kWh last year. The Alliance filed an appeal March 1 with the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to have the agency reopen its review of the agreement after a recent announcement that NStar, a privately owned power utility in Massachusetts, was able to secure cheaper power from land-based renewable-energy projects. NStar is paying less than 10 cents per kWh for its power from three New England wind farms.

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said in a prepared statement that the appeal is, “another attempt by the fossil-fuel

funded opposition group” to obstruct the clean-energy project. “The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities conducted an exhaustive review and found that Cape Wind is cost-effective and necessary to meet the commonwealth’s requirements. Nothing in the latest filings changes that.” But opponents are hoping a bevy of legal actions might. In December, the Alliance, the TransCanada energy company and Associated Industries of Massachusetts—the state’s largest business association—filed separate appeals against the DPU’s approval of Cape Wind’s power purchase agreement. The groups charge that the DPU decision violates several of its own directives, including dismissing a competitive bid, failing to determine cost-effectiveness of the power purchase agreement, and discriminating against out-of-state resources. “By rubber-stamping a backroom, no-bid deal that violates the state’s own safeguards for competitively bid contracts and price effectiveness, the DPU has created a dangerous precedent,” Parker said.

In contrast to Cape Wind’s 30 cents per kWh cost at the end of its 15-year contract, the Interior Department is projecting an energy cost of seven cents per kWh by the year 2030 for its $50 million strategic plan to develop offshore wind energy off the Atlantic Coast. The plan, announced in February, will provide funding in a bid process for technology development, “removing market barriers,” and funding for the development and refinement of next-generation design for wind turbine drivetrains that are expected to make wind power cost-effective. This will help the Department of Energy reach its goal of 54 gigawatts (GW) of deployed offshore wind generating capacity by 2030, at a cost of seven cents per kWh, with an interim target of 10 GW of capacity deployed by 2020, at a cost of energy of 10 cents per kWh,” Salazar said in a press release. “We are starting to unlock our nation’s renewable-energy potential in unprecedented ways thanks to smart siting and economic incentives from the President’s tax-cut package. Building a strong renewable-energy economy will help reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and create jobs here at home.”

Michael Boyd, the president of Californians for Renewable Energy (CARE), said Salazar’s policies appear to target Native peoples’ cultural identities for destruction. “His mistreatment of the Massachusetts Wampanoag tribe…in the Cape Wind project is an example of his policy in action.” CARE, a nonprofit corporation that aims to encourage the use of alternative forms of renewable energy, and Massachusetts resident Barbara Durkin, a CARE member and independent researcher who has focused for the last seven years on impact to wildlife caused by wind turbines, filed a complaint in December with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) against Cape Wind, National Grid, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, “for their ongoing conspiracy to violate the Federal Power Act by approving contracts for capacity and energy that exceeds the utilities’ avoided cost cap.” The complaint also charges that the Cape Wind-National Grid agreement “usurps” FERC’s exclusive jurisdiction to determine the wholesale rates for electricity. The complaint further charges that National Grid and the DPU have, “aided and abetted Cape Wind’s fraudulent actions” by claiming both an investment tax credit and a production tax credit—that is, “double-dipping”—under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

There are also four lawsuits against the Interior Department by the Alliance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Cetacean Society International, and Three Bays Preservation for violations of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and other laws.

Cape Wind still has several steps to take before construction can begin: It needs to find a buyer for the remaining 50 percent of power the project will generate, the state will need to review that power purchase contract, and the Construction and Operations Plan will need public review and approval. The 871-page plan was released February 22 and a two-week public-comment period was scheduled, setting off a new round of objections from project opponents. “Fifteen days is just a ridiculously short amount of time to review such a large document,” Parker told

If the project isn’t stopped, the tribes have the option of taking the issue to an international arena such as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights or the Organization of American States’s Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Andrews-Maltais said she would not hesitate in bringing that suggestion to the tribal decision makers. She says her tribal members thought the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year would put a halt to the Cape Wind project. “But everything has been done to push this through against common sense and the will of the people who are going to be affected by it,” she said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do this.’ We said, ‘Let’s work and find a place where we can all live with it.’ We said, ‘If nothing else, let’s wait for the new improved technology instead of being stuck with antiquated stuff that we know is going to break.’

“We had the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now we have millions of dead fish in California. What do they think is going to happen when 46 square miles of the seabed in an area that is teeming with life are dug up?” Andrews-Maltais said. “Don’t they understand that when you kill the life in the water, you kill everything?”