Here we go again: Another well-funded group of opponents has launched a legal effort to prevent the construction of an offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts. This time it’s the Vineyard Wind proposal 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard that proponents believe could supply enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. Federal law affords the foes almost endless opportunities to delay and derail the project — and that’s a problem.
A decade ago, a similar effort helped stymie the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, which would have been the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind farm and a valuable tool to fight climate change. Opponents repeatedly challenged permitting decisions, and though the project won most of its battles in court, the delays cost money and helped doom the plan.
The demise of Cape Wind was part of a pattern, especially in New England, where other large energy projects, including the Northern Pass electricity transmission line, have been thwarted by laborious, multistep state and federal permitting processes that empower small groups to kill projects with a thousand regulatory paper cuts. Northern Pass would have imported clean energy from Canada to help reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels; the state’s backup plan, a power line through Maine, is now also facing determined opposition.
The nation’s environmental review laws serve an important purpose: to make sure that large construction projects don’t damage the environment any more than is necessary, and that developers explore less harmful alternatives. The National Environmental Policy Act, the granddaddy of US environmental review laws, was passed amid public outrage over projects like highways that ran roughshod over neighborhoods that didn’t want them or developments that destroyed wetlands.
Nobody wants to go back to the days when Robert Moses could bulldoze neighborhoods with the stroke of a pen. But the current policy has been exploited by tiny and often self-interested groups to thwart the greater good — endangering the very environment those laws were intended to protect. The reality is that reducing and eventually eliminating fossil fuel use will require a massive buildout of energy infrastructure — projects that are likely to include not just offshore wind farms, but also power transmission lines, massive fields of solar panels, hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipelines, nuclear power plants, high-speed rail lines, and more.
The plaintiffs, two Nantucket residents, claim they are concerned about the project’s impact on the endangered North Atlantic right whale — and also about the industrialization of the ocean. They’re backed by undisclosed donors and a Delaware nonprofit led by a former Trump transition official.
Impacts on rare wildlife obviously need to be considered in permitting decisions, and whether to sink giant turbines into the ocean floor is a legitimate worry. And in fact, they were considered: Vineyard Wind agreed not to conduct construction of its 62 turbines when whales are in the vicinity of the turbines, among other accommodations.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate recently approved would make some reforms to the federal environmental review process, and set a goal of completing infrastructure reviews in two years. It would be a good start; the average now is about 4.5 years, with some reviews stretching on much longer. The House should approve the legislation too. But it wouldn’t prevent opponents from using the legal system to delay projects to death with frivolous lawsuits. Here in Massachusetts, the Legislature recently required opponents to put up a $50,000 bond, if they want to challenge certain housing projects, in an effort to discourage meritless challenges — but that applies only to a narrow category of housing. Permitting processes need enforceable deadlines, and when opponents go to court, those reviews need to be expedited.
Long environmental reviews and laws that hand inordinate power to opponents are not why America lags other countries in things like high-speed rail and green energy. But they are certainly a part of the reason. Massachusetts lost its chance to be a leader in offshore wind when Cape Wind failed — not because the state didn’t need it then, but because the regulatory and legal conditions here made it impossible to build. Hopefully, Vineyard Wind won’t meet the same fate. But without legal reforms, delivering the infrastructure the country needs will be that much harder, slower, more expensive — and less likely to happen at all.
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