Cape Wind, Bill Koch and Birds…

(who would win in a policy fight?)

A toast to William Koch!

Why? Have you ever heard the phrase “first world problem”? Leaving the somewhat outdated terminology aside, here’s an example: Your local organic coffee shop is all out of your favorite fancy frozen drink and (Dern it!) you’ll have to get the one without nutmeg.

Why do things like this happen to you?! Oh… Right. It’s because you are very very lucky.

Recently, I came across the multi-millionaire or even billionaire variant in an old Forbs article:

On a blustery, gray morning in August, William I. Koch, the billionaire energy mogul, gazes out a window in his Osterville, Mass., home down to the choppy waters of Nantucket Sound, just a few hundred yards past a barrier island of sand that protects the seven boats parked at his dock. “I go out and sail on the Sound; it’s so beautiful,” says the 1992 America’s Cup champ. “Why would you want to sail in a forest of windmills?

That, in essence, seems to be the most often if not best articulated concern about Cape Wind, the proposed wind farm off Nantucket Sound. In fact, it’s a frightening enough prospect for some that they are willing to spend millions of dollars organizing an opposition campaign. William Koch, personally, has spent several million over the years defending his skyline. When he recently decided to drop another cool couple million into Romney’s presidential campaign (apparently Romney is an old buddy), the lone act garnered national publicity for Cape Wind in the mainstream media.

The timing is spot-on because the final public hearing by the Department of Public Utilities is being held in Boston Tonight. (June 30th, 7:00pm, One South Station, 5th Floor. Any person can comment.)

It’s not the first time this has happened. A few years ago The Daily Show covered it and  last year the documentary Cape Spin debuted, both focusing on the flamboyant opulence that buoys this issue in the press.

However, there are serious questions to ask about the environmental and cultural impacts of these windmills. It is a multibillion dollar industrial project. Perhaps surprisingly, CapeWind.org (organized by proponents of the Cape Wind project), generally seem to have done a more thorough job investigating these concerns than The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (the organization funded by Koch and other opponents). Let’s consider this from the perspective of the birds. Harm to birds seems to be the second most frequently voiced concern. Besides, we love them and, like millionaires and elections, they are in this summer.

The Audubon Society has come out in favor of Cape Wind, and they have even released their own report on the matter. It’s not because it won’t kill birds. It almost certainly will, but the data indicates that it won’t have a significant affect on populations. Climate change, however, is anticipated to both reduce populations and eliminate species. The Audubon Society describes it as “the greatest threat to birds and other species in human history”. They report that already almost 60% of North American birds have shifted northward, with many laying eggs earlier in the spring and changing their migratory behavior. Far from an easy solution, these shifts present the very real risk of putting the birds out of sync with the environments they have adapted to. Their chicks may hatch a couple weeks earlier but the insects they need may not yet be available. It was a tough decision, and If the farm is constructed, I imagine protecting local birds and bird populations will require continued monitoring.

Even in the very short term, it is naive to assume that the birds are in the clear without the project. 80% of Massachusetts energy comes from fossil fuels, divided in rough thirds between natural gas, petroleum and coal (at least in 2005). Gas wells are a product of fracking. There is no comprehensive monitoring of fracking’s suspected effect either on water or the birds that drink it, and regulations preventing air pollution have yet to go into effect. Petroleum is shipped into Massachusetts and every so often there are spills. In 2003, approximately 89,000 gallons of no. 6 oil was spilled in Buzzards Bay. As a result, the remains of 500 birds were collected. Coal, most notably mountaintop removal results in habitat destruction and pollution, both of which can harm bird populations.

Then, there is the energy generation. Brayton Point Power Station on the shores of Mount Hope Bay in Somerset, Massachusetts is the largest fossil fuel burning power plant in New England. According to the EPA, each day the plant: “withdraws nearly one billion gallons of water from the Bay and circulates it through the facility to condense the steam used to produce electricity. The water is then discharged back to the Bay at elevated temperatures of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Operation… damages or kills many aquatic organisms…” .* At the moment, I can only speculate on how New England’s water fowl respond to dead fish and steam baths. This is just a smattering from a day’s search, looking at it from a birds perspective. As in most places, the current state of energy extraction, transportation and production in Massachusetts is a hot mess. The trouble is that listing the myriad of ways our current energy infrastructure harm humans and the environment can get repetitive and boring… and it’s bit of a downer.

 But William Koch and his Nantucket neighbors have come to the rescue. These people who know how to have fun and get people’s attention. Koch once treated his entire team to a trip to Hawaii after they brought home the national world cup… in yachting!

I didn’t even know people raced yachts!

When these folks discovered their starboard and maybe libertarian views were threatened by Cape Wind, they pulled off what few reality TV producers, let alone energy and policy analysts, could. By starting an nonprofit primarily dedicated to the preservation of their vacation view, by making individual donations that were worth more than what most of us make in a decade, and by unselfconsciously voicing the kinds of dilemmas most of us can only dream of, they have put on a show more amusing than “rich girls” or “the simple life” making the national energy conversation  really entertaining.

All art in today’s post is borrowed from Randal Munroe’s xkcd.com

While our national energy discussion may have needed some of that, one question remains (along with several other more important ones). Was that their goal? Because, if all Mr. Koch and his wealthy buddies actually want is to protect their Cape views, they could just go ahead and buy themselves, their neighbor’s and, heck, why not the rest of us, solar panels and cute little micro turbines. Sure, there would probably be a slight financial hit to Mr. Koch and others who own fossil fuel companies or have investments in them, but they can probably swallow it. We would get very affordable energy, and maybe even a planet spared the worst effects of our energy use to leave to the next generation. As for the view…  well, we could leave it for the Billionaires.

 ~neuvaspora

* They may have changed this in 2012. If you have time to look it up, please leave a comment.

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