Eco-smackdown: GreenPeace and RFK, Jr. tussle over wind farm

Here’s something you don’t see very often. Greenpeace (see campaign) pulls up in a zodiac next to Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s sailing ship to protest his opposition to the Cape Wind project. Their banner reads:

“Bobby, you’re on the wrong boat. Say yes to Cape Wind”

Planned as the second largest offshore wind farm in the world, the 130 turbine farm will be placed just 6 miles off the shallow Nantucket sound. Location is RFK’s main objection, as he writes in his impassioned NIMBY op-ed in the New York Times.

Kennedy recites a laundry list of minor criticisms of the project, and spends an unfortunate amount of time waxing poetic about the unsullied views from the beach:

I invite these critics to see the pods of humpback, minke, pilot, finback and right whales off Nantucket, to marvel at the thousands of harbor and gray seals lolling on the bars off Monomoy and Horseshoe Shoal, to chase the dark clouds of terns and shorebirds descending over the thick menhaden schools exploding over acre-sized feeding frenzies of striped bass, bluefish and bonita.

Now, we are not against emotional appeals for causes, but it concerns us when important environmental issues get reduced to this sort of squishy marketing campaign. Is environmentalism just about appealing to people’s emotional connection with animals? Can’t we have a spirited and hardnosed debate about our environmental priorities?

Economics has a long history of cost benefit analysis — and yes, as much as it is disturbing, economists even put a price on human life in these analyses (currently $4.7 million). Public health policymakers rely heavily on these tools to inform decisions about large scale programs and measure the results of their choices.

Why then is the environmental community so often unable or unwilling to put hard numbers around choices that involve both benefits (wind farms that give us more sustainable future) and costs (impact to local environment, Robert Kennedy’s view)? Note that Kennedy is not alone. The Sierra Club still refuses to buy green power, due to internal disagreement about avian impacts.

We have a humble suggestion for the wind power debate. Find locales that welcome wind farms, and change the regulations to support the export of wind energy from those states. Wind farmers in the Midwest are expanding a good clip, and don’t face any opposition. Currently, they only sell their carbon credits into the voluntary market — to folks like TerraPass and WholeFoods — and also use the credits to fulfill their state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards.

What if Massachusetts woke up and said, “Listen, it is not economical for us to produce wind energy in Massachusetts. So let’s just buy it on the open market. We’ll achieve our environmental goals through market mechanisms.” I know some wind farmers in Minnesota that would be more than happy to take that call.

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  1. Anonymous - January 18, 2006

    have you guys been to the area he is talking about in Massachusetts?
    i have, ever since the debate began, been defending keeping ANWAR oil free. my allies claim the area is just too sensitive to support drilling, regardless of how few acres are scheduled to be drilled. my counterparts argue it is of vital national interest, and that the greater good would benefit from such a small impact.
    While although Mr Kennedy surely is playing the card, he is defending a salt water area that is very prolific. we are hardly talking about setting up wind farms in some barron stretch of ocean. i feel there are parallel’s here that need to be seen.
    wind farms haphazardly placed serve us all, ultimately, no better than oil fields of the same. poor planning is a universal, and we must be careful to plan smarter energy more smartly. buying it from the midwest sounds great !

  2. Nicademus - January 18, 2006

    Haphazardly place? They’re in channel that sees well above average sustained wind rates. ANWR isn’t placed haphazardly either actually. It comes down to a cost benefit analysis. The area is being commercially fished despite the fact that fish stocks collapsed decades ago. It is a mile offshore from a massive collection of estates that produce tons of toxic, oxygen robbing runoff which pour into the sound every rainfall.
    This goes beyond NIMBYism to flat out rich elitist limosine liberal hypocrisy. As a regisitered Democrat and a life long environmentalist I can’t help but honestly feel emnity towards these people. Saving the planet takes more than holding funderaiser dinners and buying organic milk.
    Their case is so weak I just wish they’d shut up. A loose collection of romantic speeches and weak analogies vs an honest to god chance to have been the fore runner of ocean wind power in this country.
    God save the left from friends like these.

  3. Jim Crimmins - January 18, 2006

    A few points:
    1. The area Kennedy is talking about would be visible from his family compound in
    Hyannnis Port. A fact he neglects to mention in his op-ed. Strange.
    2. He makes a legitimate point about ANWR, which is that is is extremely distant from significant human populations, and that argues **more** for it being drilled. In fact the few humans that are there support ANWR drilling for economic reasons. Moreover, there are many beautiful areas of this country where people’s backyards are being drilled, especially for gas, in places like southwestern Colorado, where I live. In fact I am in the process of organizing a group of citizens to bid against energy companies for mineral rights that are on inhabited, privately owned, quite beautiful lands with major elk habitat. My vote if you have to drill somewhere goes with the people and against the caribou- sorry.

  4. jch - January 18, 2006

    Kennedy…flies in private jets using thousands of gallons of avgas [JP5], has a half dozen SUVs, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars heating and cooling “compounds” of homes, and is against drilling in ANWR and is against wind power off Kennedyland. Typical lib. I wish the oil companies would cut off MASS from any heating oil or gasoline deliveries. Let the liberal Democrats freeze!!! [Mary Jo was unavailable for comment.]

  5. Paul Nickerson - January 18, 2006

    Prior to this project being approved, both state and federal fish and wildlife officials will conduct an exhaustive review of possible environmental impacts to all of the species of fish and wildlife found in the vicinity during any stage of their life cycle. Particular emphasis will certainly be on the Endangered whales listed by NOAA Fisheries and the roseate tern and piping plover listed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If impacts are predicted to be minimal, its unlikely that those agencies would recommend denial. Serious impacts might warrant modifications, redesign or even project cancellation. The point is that emotion will not dictate the outcome of that review; biology will. Obviously, many other things must be considered in addition to fish and wildlife impacts prior to this project moving forward, but I am certain that the area’s fauna will get fair hearing

  6. Gordon C - January 18, 2006

    Kennedy is wrong on this one.
    Everyone has go give a little, or a lot, to reverse our addiction to imported oil.
    He could play a great role model for such a sacrifice right here.

  7. VicB - January 18, 2006

    -If you suspect a bit of hypocrisy in Mr Kennedy’s position you might drop a line to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where Mr Kennedy is a spokesperson and senior attorney, and let them know that NIMBY-ism hardly benefits their credibility. I just received a strident fund-raising letter from the NRDC, and notice that Mr Kennedy is apparently not too proud to benefit from such fund-raising since he is apparently on the payroll (he also receives intangible benefits for his image as an apparent environmentalist).
    -I wish Mr Kennedy well, and all NIMBY-ists may have a point, but perhaps the best position Mr Kennedy could take on this issue is to realize the almost incredibly obvious and significant conflict of interest, and the potential blow to the credibility of organizations like the NRDC, and simply recuse himself from this issue.

  8. Geoff - January 19, 2006

    The basic idea of promoting wind projects where the population wants them is fine, but the idea of Massachusetts buying wind energy from the Midwest ignores some realities about power transmission. Line losses, which vary from 2% to 20% or more, in proportion to distance and at the square of load, are an important consideration in how far electricity can be “wheeled”. This gets even more complicated when you consider that we don’t have a national electricity grid, but rather a set of inter-connected regional grids. The amount of power that can flow from one to another is thus limited, and new transmission projects have been at least as unpopular as wind projects.
    If wind power is going to assume a major role in supplanting fossil fuel-generated electric power, particularly given its intermittent nature, then it must be sited in the most promising wind zones and relatively close to the load (demand) it serves.

  9. Mike - January 19, 2006

    I’ll reserve judgment as to all of RFK’s motivations for the moment.
    However, I think the piece downplays the avian fatality problem unfairly. Avian fatality as a result of wind farms (and other towers) is not a small problem. Many songbird and raptor populations have, for the most part, been in serious decline for years. While there have been some improvements that have reduced avian mortalities resulting from wind farms and other towers, it remains a serious problem. For more, see, or do a search on “avian mortality and wind farms”.
    Development of any kind–even “green”–should be well planned and considerate of its consequences. There shouldn’t be no blank checks.

  10. Adam - January 19, 2006

    Thanks for your comments. Our suggestion is not to literally ship power from the Midwest to Massachusetts, which we agree is infeasible. Rather, we are suggesting that Massachusetts should buy RECs from Midwestern states to fulfill its desired quota of renewable energy, and continue to source its power locally.

  11. John - January 19, 2006

    RFK Jr is short-sighted (no pun intended) by his opposition to the Cape Wind initiative. NRDC, by association, suffers a credibility problem. He has written that that ocean is “our (northeast’s) Grand Canyon”. Huh? I grew up in Massachusetts, and the Cape shore looks much like the Jersey shore which looks much like the Delaware shore which looks much like the Florida shore… Large wind farms are graceful and present a far more benign aesthetic than power plants.
    The bird issue is so overblown as to be ridiculous. There is no totally harmless source of power generation, period. But buildings, communications towers, and pollution from fossil combustion (yes!) kill many many more birds than the occasional wind farm.