Editorial : What did the secretary see?
Ken Salazar, a fifth generation Coloradan and the fiftieth Secretary of the Interior of the United States, went to sea Tuesday in a 10-gallon hat, to inspect the Horseshoe Shoals site of the proposed 130-turbine, Cape Wind clean power plant. (Why February, you may well ask. Wouldn't the scene be wildly different and even more eloquent in, say, August?)
He also discussed the proposal with members of two branches of the Wampanoag Indian nation, one Cape Cod-based, the other at home in Aquinnah. The Indians regard the shoals as revered territory, both historically because before it submerged it was a hunting and fishing territory for their forbears, and today, because it is an over-water vista that serves their ritual devotion to the sun's daily rise.
At the last minute, the Indian nation has knotted the decade-long effort to get Cape Wind a permit to build its plant on Horseshoe Shoals. Mr. Salazar, a fervent prairie-based supporter of wind powered electrical generation, promises to untie the knot, one way or another, by April.
Mr. Salazar's visit to the shoals and to the data tower that was installed there years ago took him from Vineyard Sound, through Nantucket Sound, north of the Vineyard, south of Cape Cod, by the long reach of Cape Poge, by Tuckernuck and Cross Rip. It's an historic sea path, traveled for hundreds of years by primitive small craft, by trading vessels, fishing vessels, pleasure craft, and ferries.
For most of the voyage, Mr. Salazar could see the surrounding shores. He could see that the churning salt water over the shoals, despite the legal and geographic anomaly that has them labeled federal, are not ocean waters at all. They are familiar, wild, lonely, fruitful, useful local waters - our own backyard water world. They are not where 130-turbine, wind energy electricity factories belong.
Supporters of Cape Wind, including Mr. Salazar and the Obama and Patrick administrations, imagine that the proposal for Horseshoe Shoal stakes a claim in the energy future. In fact, the Cape Wind plan is an unfulfilled development in the first generation of new, more efficient, less polluting solutions to the nation's ravenous appetite for energy. The next generation of solutions to the clean energy mystery is in the labs today, including other approaches to using wind to make electricity, many of them far offshore rather than a few miles from our beaches. Some of these offshore ideas are on the brink of development right now.
Changing circumstances, including rising oil prices, rising demand for petroleum, and legislative enthusiasm for new energy technologies, combined with sanctions on older, polluting energy production methods, are preparing the ground for the development of new, next-generation technologies. The bet here is that wind will play a helpful but minimal role in the non-polluting, energy generation industries of the future. Trading Horseshoe Shoals for such small gain will certainly cost more than it can possibly be worth.
Ian Bowles, state Secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Protection, has deprecated what he referred to as the Vineyard's pride in relying on fossil fuels for all the power Islanders consume. But, in fact, what Islanders take pride in is their geographic neighborhood, including the land, the shore, and the nearby sea. They take pride too in a regional sense of the familiar and valuable qualities that attach to these lovely and rewarding geographic features, region-wide. Would we allow them to be degraded? Perhaps, but not in exchange for a minimal, and certainly not for a valueless, alternative.
There's room for Cape Wind, or rather for projects like it, when an analysis of the equities in such proposals finds that the benefits outweigh the detriments. It is impossible to draw that conclusion when the very small anticipated contribution from the Cape Wind installation is set against the loss of 25 acres of wild, empty ocean, near the shore and host to a wide variety of pleasure and commercial marine activities.
The feverish, high-profile debate over Cape Wind's proposal has something in common with the critical risk-reward analysis of the wind farm proposal itself. Each has smaller upsides than downsides. On the one hand, the consuming focus on the struggle over Cape Wind may divert important attention from the promotion and funding support of efforts to find more promising new energy technologies. And, on the other, a vast ocean wilderness may be traded for a small renewable power yield.