Republican probes White House role in Cape Wind approval

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, July 6, 2012

With his Solyndra investigation winding down, a key House Republican is turning his sights on another controversial renewable energy project in an effort to paint the Obama administration as allowing political support for clean power to trump safety concerns.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) says he wants to know more about the approval of the Cape Wind project, which aims to erect 130 turbines off Massachusetts’ shore in what would be the first such wind farm in federal waters.

Stearns, who chairs a House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, is honing in on internal Federal Aviation Administration documents obtained by Cape Wind opponents that he says raise questions about whether pressure from the White House forced the agency to ignore concerns about possible radar interference and other flight safety risks that Cape Wind would create for planes flying to and from nearby airports.

Cape Wind proponents dismiss the calls for an investigation as election-year efforts to sully the president’s promotion of renewable energy, and they note that FAA reached the same conclusion that the turbines would not create an insurmountable “hazard” to air navigation twice during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Stearns’ subcommittee has jurisdiction to investigate the project because it also required approvals from U.S. EPA and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is overseen by the panel. Investigations also could be launched by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has FAA jurisdiction, or the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has a broad mandate to review government activities. But no formal investigation has been planned.

“It’s too early to talk about a hearing, but I’m very interested in the political pressure applied by the Administration in support of the President’s green jobs scheme that is producing very few jobs,” Stearns said in a statement to Greenwire this week. “Currently, we are still looking into the emails and other information involving the project.”

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is up for re-election this year, also has called for an investigation into the matter, telling the Boston Herald this week, “If there’s any inference of any backroom deals … there should be an independent investigation to verify if those things are true.”

A federal appeals court last year did rebuke FAA’s “no hazard” finding for the Cape Wind project, ruling that the agency did not properly follow its internal guidelines related to evaluating flight risks. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in October ordered FAA to re-evaluate the project (E&ENews PM, Oct. 28, 2011). FAA says the results of that re-evaluation will be released soon.

The D.C. Circuit decision came as a result of a petition from critics including the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which obtained the FAA emails through a public records request and has alleged in a letter to FAA that the documents show that “political factors” forced FAA to ignore its safety-first mandate.

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said allegations of political interference are unfounded, noting that the project also won FAA approval during the Bush administration and that opponents of the project also have heavily lobbied FAA to block the project. He says the emails are cherry-picked to highlight the most damaging excerpts.

‘Extremely political’

Stearns last week released a 13-page selection of some of the most damning documents, and the alliance shared with Greenwire a 110-page selection used to support its allegations in the FAA letter.

Audra Parker, the alliance’s president, said in an interview this week that she combed through a “banker’s box” of documents obtained through the records request to assemble those that demonstrate political pressure to approve the project.

The cache of documents includes emails and presentations prepared by midlevel FAA officials discussing concerns surrounding the projects and possible mitigation options, such as requiring Cape Wind developer Energy Management Inc. to pay for upgrades to radar systems used by affected airports.

The emails also note “considerable pressure” to complete the reviews and highlight the “highly political nature” of the project. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by FAA observes that it “would be very difficult politically to refuse approval of this project.”

Cape Wind defenders say the emails show agency staff members concerned about the thoroughness of their review, not necessarily being pressured to approve the project. One email notes that controversy was likely to follow no matter which decision was reached.

“[T]his is extremely political and we must absolutely have an iron-clad thorough response to the radar concerns expressed … keeping in mind there is a distinct possibility that, no matter which way these cases are decided … there could be litigation,” one FAA official wrote to colleagues in a May 28, 2009, email.

Cape Wind won its lease from the Interior Department in April 2010, after a decade of regulatory review and resistance from high-profile opponents including the alliance, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Gov. Mitt Romney, who is now the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.

Pointing to the cast of prominent opponents who worked to slow the project, Cape Wind defenders say it is the height of hypocrisy for the alliance to now start crying foul over alleged political interference.

“For the opponents of the project to come out and call these guys out for undue political influence is the ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black,” said Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and a Cape Wind supporter.

FAA’s determinations of no hazard — technically, 130 identical determinations for each turbine — were issued within a few weeks of the lease’s approval.

Parker says the timing of the determinations combined with discussion of political pressure in the emails show that FAA ignored its mandate and should judge the turbines a hazard to air navigation when it completes its latest assessment.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that there are safety issues and that there were concerns by their own technical people,” Parker said in an interview this week.

The emails don’t include direct communications from any White House officials, but Stearns says there is enough there to demand further inquiry.

“We have reviewed numerous internal FAA emails that detail that the review of the Cape Wind project was ‘in a rush status’ because there was considerable pressure to approve it,” Stearns said in the statement this week. “These emails demonstrate that FAA officials were aware that it would be ‘difficult politically to refuse approval of this project’ and in response to concerns about the project one FAA official quipped ‘who is willing to go tell the White House that we are halting wind development because there might be wake turbulence or microclimate effects?’”

FAA previously signed off on the project in following reviews in 2002 and 2006, under then-President Bush, but Parker said the 2009-10 review included newer evidence of potential radar problems that should have been enough to scuttle the project.

NIMBY allegations

Cape Wind defenders say the effort to gin up controversy around FAA is just the latest in a long-standing campaign from “not in my backyard” opponents whose primary concern is protecting the views from their Cape Cod estates.

“This is a group that has spent over $20 million opposing a project for personal reasons to them, and this is really one of the last fights they have so they’re trying to make it as big an issue as possible,” said Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, an industry group.

The alliance has been at the forefront of a coalition of Cape Wind opponents that have challenged the project at every opportunity and fought several state and federal court battles seeking to block the project, such as a challenge to Cape Wind’s power purchase contract with a local utility that went to Massachusetts’ highest court before the developer ultimately prevailed. The D.C. Circuit decision against FAA is the only case in which opponents have prevailed.

One other federal court case, which consolidates claims under the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and other historical and cultural preservation laws, is pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Separately, Cape Wind announced today it will begin initial site assessment work for the wind farm with a geological and geophysical survey operation set to begin tomorrow and run through September or October (see related story).