Counting all the Birds
"There is a certain irony in mankind's present situation.... The human being is exquisitely adapted to recognize and respond to threats to survival that come in the form of sudden, dramatic events.... Yet today the primary threats to our collective survival are slow, gradual developments arising from processes that are complex both in detail and in dynamics." - Peter M. Senge, in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline
Citizens of Martha's Vineyard are invited to an intelligence test. Our appointment is at 5 pm on Wednesday, March 12, at the Performing Arts Center. The occasion is a hearing called by the Minerals Management Service to accept comments on the agency's 718-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Cape Wind plan for an electric generating wind farm in Nantucket Sound.
The challenge to our community next Wednesday is the same challenge that now faces humans around the planet: Can we properly weigh the benefits and dangers of two paths of action when our choice involves balancing specific, immediate and visible local effects against gradual, complex global processes?
Behind Curtain One, proposed by Cape Wind, is a plan to set 130, 3.6-megawatt turbine towers on Horseshoe Shoal, a shallows of 25 square miles that lies about five and a half miles offshore at its closest point. This array of 440-foot turbines would generate an average 183 megawatts of electricity, meeting 75 percent of the power needs of the Cape and Islands.
Behind Curtain Two is the alternative, namely no wind farm on the Sound - life goes on, and we get our power from suppliers like the oil-fired Mirant Canal plant in Sandwich, just as we have for lo these many years.
The Cape Wind project is something new - the first offshore wind farm proposed in the United States - and for many people, it's scary. Even the federal government had to struggle with crafting a review process for this unprecedented project, starting with the Army Corps of Engineers and then transferring oversight to the Department of Interior in 2005.
For Cape Wind, it's been a long haul. In November of 2001, when the wind farm was first proposed, oil was $20 a barrel. It was 2005 before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board decided to approve the windfarm, estimating that the project would save $25 million per year for New England customers. By then, oil was $45 per barrel.
(It's enough to make you wonder: how long before we look back on $100 oil and say, those were the good old days?)
Finally this January, the MMS issued a draft statement with these findings:
- Horseshoe Shoal is, environmentally and economically, the best site of the nine alternatives it identified after searching the shoreline from Maine to Rhode Island.
- Cape Wind will reduce emissions of the global warming gas, carbon dioxide, by 880,000 tons per year.
- Cape Wind will cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that harm human health.
- Cape Wind will have no major impacts on birds, fish, marine mammals, fishing, tourism, or navigation by air or sea.
- Cape Wind will advance Massachusetts greatly toward its renewable energy goals.
Cape Wind's list of supporters and endorsers ranges from the American Lung Association to the Boston Globe, from the League of Women Voters to Greenpeace, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental League of Massachusetts. It also has one well-funded adversary in the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group that formed in opposition soon after the wind farm was announced, and has spent most of the past seven years throwing every fear-mongering accusation it can scrounge up against the plan, in hopes that something will stick.
In its early years, the Alliance published a map that showed the windfarm far closer to land than it actually lies. It also disseminated a photograph that vastly exaggerated the visibility of the turbines from shore. Lately the Alliance been less creative, to use a generous word. But most of the arguments the Alliance now lists against the windfarm on its website have been knocked down by the report of the Minerals Management Service.
The Alliance claims the windfarm "poses a clear danger to air and sea navigation" and calls it "an accident waiting to happen." The MMS found the turbines, with their towers set from 600 to 900 feet apart, may be an inconvenience for recreational sailboats but not a hazard to others. The Coast Guard says most large boats will run aground before ever reaching the windfarm because Horseshoe Shoal is, well, a shoal.
The Alliance claims the windfarm will be a source of visual, noise and light pollution. The MMS found that the visual impact from shore will be only moderate, and that the project as proposed "is anticipated to be inaudible from shoreline locations."
In fact, public opposition to the Cape Wind project, though well-funded, is thin. Polls have shown strong statewide support for the windfarm. Meanwhile, the Alliance has accepted individual donations as large as $450,000, and has paid its director a salary of more than $200,000 - earning it this colorful description in the Boston Globe: "The Alliance is a 'grassroots' organization that just happens to have really, really rich supporters who just happen to own really, really expensive shorefront mansions on the Cape."
The wind farm's political problem is that it must overcome two profoundly human traits - our fear of the new, and our easier apprehension of specifics that we can see over intangibles that we can't.
We can see how the wind farm might force some boaters to change their habits, and how a small but countable number of marine birds will collide with the blades of the turbines. Perhaps not as many as fly into the picture windows of Vineyard homes or the sides of tall Boston buildings, but a number of them nevertheless.
What we cannot see is the health impacts of the half-million pounds of pollutants the Mirant Canal plant spews each year as it burns Number 6 fuel oil to generate our electricity. We can't see, quite so clearly, how our dollars are flowing to the Persian Gulf, or how habitat for creatures in the Arctic Circle is disappearing under the pressure of global warming. And it's hard to see the connection between oil-fired electric plants and the rising sea levels that threaten roseate terns and piping plovers.
But in fact, one of the most remarkable and most salutory allies Cape Wind has found in its effort to build the wind farm is a respected organization whose leadership has put its passion for wildlife in a perspective that reaches beyond the parochialism of "Not in my backyard."
"We review Cape Wind," the National Audubon Society declared in March 2006, "in the context of a planet experiencing rapid climate warming, oil spills, strip mining, air pollution, and the push for nuclear power as a clean energy source.
"The consequences of climate warming compel us to increase energy conservation as a first priority. And, to continue to supply our energy needs, wind should be tapped as the most successful and readily available of all renewable energy technologies. The benefits and detriments of Cape Wind must be balanced against the significant threats to Nantucket Sound posed by fossil-fuel use and rapid climate change."
The Audubon Society ended up not simply endorsing Cape Wind, but challenging the developer and its regulators to get this project right. The message wasn't, "We have these concerns, so don't build it," but rather, "We have concerns, but global warming scares us more, so let's do this well."
As John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, said by way of explaining his organization's position: "When you look at a wind turbine, you can find the bird carcasses and count them. With a coal-fired power plant, you can't count the carcasses, but it's going to kill a lot more birds."
That, I'd suggest, is exactly the right answer in the intelligence test that faces us in the case of Cape Wind. It's about learning to count all the dead birds - looking past our immediate horizons and seeing the energy issue in its urgent global perspective.