Wind Power:

Author Robert Whitcomb takes humorous look at Cape Wind debate

This fall, the Minerals Management Service is expected to release a report on the environmental impact of the controversial Cape Wind project -- a project that would place wind turbines off the coast of Massachusetts. During today's OnPoint, Robert Whitcomb author of the book, "Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound," discusses the debate over Cape Wind from its inception. He describes the different characters that have played a major role in the debate and takes a comedic approach at discussing the back-and-forth that has permeated not only the affected communities in Massachusetts but also Capitol Hill.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Robert Whitcomb, author of the book, "Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound." Bob is also the editorial page editor of the Providence Journal. Bob, thanks to coming on the show.

Robert Whitcomb: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Bob, this isn't your ordinary policy book. You and your co-author Wendy Williams take a more comedic approach to discussing the Cape Wind battle that's been plaguing the Nantucket region and also Capitol Hill for the past six or so years. Why did you decide to write this book and take the approach that you took with it?

Robert Whitcomb: Well, we thought this was a very good example of how policy and public policy process works, as opposed to people, how they say it works. We thought a lot of the problems with public policy in Washington and around the country were demonstrated well in this particular tale, in which a relatively small number of very rich people stop this project from going. And we thought a lot of it was very comic actually, sort of a comedy of manners. It's extremely fashionable to say you're a conservationist, say you're an environmentalist, but when push comes to shove, if it means any sort of cutting away of luxury or privilege, then the game changes and the rhetoric changes. And I must say I was a little bit surprised to find myself co-writing a book actually, with Wendy Williams, in defense of a developer. But that's the way it worked out. The developer ended up, is the guy, even with all of his human flaws, is sort of the guy with the white hat. While his opponents, who were extremely well-heeled, well-financed, turned out to be very cynical, hypocritical, and narcissistic and with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. A lot of this book is really about a sense of entitlement, where people think if they've got a big house, a big summer house on an expensive stretch of coast that they own everything to the horizon.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about some of those opponents. I'll say it's a pretty dishy book, if I can editorialize little.

Robert Whitcomb: Yeah, sure. It's a comedy of manners.

Monica Trauzzi: And you do get into storytelling about the individual characters who live in that area. You talk about the Mellon family and you pay a lot of attention to Bunny Mellon. He discussed the link between the Mellons and Senator John Warner. You also discuss the Kennedy family's relationship with Nantucket Sound. And you even talk about Walter Cronkite.

Robert Whitcomb: Walter Cronkite's in there, yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: Why was it so important to tell these individual stories, because you spend a lot of time in the book focusing in on these individuals?

Robert Whitcomb: Because they're colorful characters and I suppose in a more, I don't know if I'd say mercenary way, but at least a way of getting people to read the book, people love to read about people. And if they're celebrities with numerous eccentricities and long colorful histories all the better.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk --

Robert Whitcomb: So we saw this as an entertainment, but with a serious end, to get people thinking about policy, how policy is made, not just energy policy. I want to emphasize that. We see this as a demonstration of how policy is made in a much broader way.

Monica Trauzzi: Policy in general?

Robert Whitcomb: Policy in general.

Monica Trauzzi: So Senator Kennedy, he opposes the project and his stance on Cape Wind has been hammered by environmental groups like Greenpeace.

Robert Whitcomb: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: In the book you say that the Kennedys have generally stayed out of local politics.

Robert Whitcomb: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: And this is a great quote, you say that they are "on Cape Cod, but not of Cape Cod." So why did things change when it came to this particular issue?

Robert Whitcomb: Because the proposal to put this big windmill farm in the middle of Nantucket Sound intruded on an area they considered sort of their private bathtub, their big warm summer bathtub. This is a place where the Kennedy family has gone in the summers for many years. Since the somewhat rapacious founder of the modern Kennedy family, Joseph Kennedy, bought a place in Hyannis, Hyannis Port, in the late 1920s, this has been their refuge. And they are treated as, and I think accurately, as the local grandees and they are very, very used to being deferred to in all manners. And this isn't just for the immediate coast, but all of Nantucket Sound, a large part of which they like to sail in. So I think you'd call this area sort of a security blanket for them. It's a refuge. But it's also an area where they have been treated with great deference for many, many years and they want that to continue. And an area that as with many rich people, it's not just the Kennedys, they feel entitled to control over much of it. There's a great sense of psychic entitlement that I think the Kennedys and some other people have, in the same way that some of their friends in the Virginia Hunt Country or various other rich places have.

Monica Trauzzi: Many people who oppose the project turned down interview requests --

Robert Whitcomb: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: -- that you made for the book. Is the book one sided then? Do you give enough play to the people who oppose this project?

Robert Whitcomb: Well, that's a very good question. Of course we tried to talk to everybody, that's part of the story. We did assiduously try to talk to everybody, including Bobby Kennedy, who is a very emotional opponent of this. And said a lot of things that were just not true, whether they were lies, and I believe some of them were lies, as were some of the remarks by Senator Ted Kennedy, they preferred to do all this stuff --

Monica Trauzzi: Bobby Kennedy being a staunch environmentalist.

Robert Whitcomb: Yes, a staunch environmentalist, sort of like Al Gore, staunch environmentalists, except in their private lives. The rules are different in their private lives. But these people had assiduously avoided dealing with the public or the press on this particular issue. They preferred to do everything, as much as possible, behind the scenes. They're trying to kill this project first in Massachusetts, then in Congress, or locally. It's very striking to me how much in this case public figures have worked so much in the shadows in this thing. But everybody, all the major characters we tried to talk to, and I have to defend William Coke, Bill Coke, big energy guy, oil and coal and gas guy, at least he did sit down with an interviewer we sent to talk with him about this. And he was pretty forthright about this. But other than that, most of these people were remarkably loath to be exposed as they tried to kill this project.

Monica Trauzzi: So to focus on the here and now, we're now waiting on a report from the Minerals Management Service on the environmental impact of this particular project. Where does the debate stand now and when do you see a winner actually coming --

Robert Whitcomb: Boy, I'll tell you Monica, this thing goes on and on and on. Now the Minerals Management Service, which was given control of this after it was switched by Congress from the Army Corps of Engineers, says that they are soon, and I hear something in November, maybe something next winter, they're going to come up with a review of this thing. And that would hopefully decide the federal level of this thing, whether this thing gets approved. On the other hand, I think this could be easily still killed in the middle of the night. The Minerals Management Service review of this thing is taking immense amounts of time, even though the data for this project, most of the data have been available for years. During the time we're waiting for this thing to be approved or disapproved, of course, numerous coal-fired plants and oil plants have been up and running. So I don't know. The earliest this thing could be really approved would probably be next year, 2008. And I'd rate its chances of finally being built at perhaps 70 percent at this point. There's been so much public support for this thing developing, not only around the country I would say, but in New England and even on Cape Cod and the islands the majority of the people support this project. But still, when you have such money and such influence and such power determined to kill it, it could still be strangled in the middle of the night, either through suborning the Minerals Management Service, and I don't know whether to believe the integrity on this or not, we'll see, or in some congressional maneuver. It's hard to tell.

Monica Trauzzi: So for lack of a better word, would you say that this is really between rich and poor?

Robert Whitcomb: I think --

Monica Trauzzi: Not necessarily poor, but the middle class that live there.

Robert Whitcomb: Yeah, I would say that's pretty accurate. It's glib. It's a generalization, but I think it's important to realize the people financing opposition are almost all rich, some of them very, very rich, billionaires. While some poor fishermen may be opposed to this thing, the fact is the opposition of this thing is organized and financed by an extraordinarily small number of very rich, very influential, very politically connected people. And I tip my hat to them. They're very good at this.

Monica Trauzzi: And there are two groups that came out and said that this particular project would damage the natural habitat in the area. The Industrial Wind Action and National Wind Watch both came out and said that this could threaten the quality of rural life in the region. How significant was it when these groups came out and said that and the debate went beyond just the NIMBY issue, I don't want this in my backyard?

Robert Whitcomb: Well, I don't know how many people in the general public knows that. There were lots of claims made at the beginning that it was going to hurt the fish. Not true. It was going to hurt the whales. There aren't whales where they want to put this wind farm. It was going to hurt navigation. But all of those things have been shot down by public reviews and even by such environmental groups as the Audubon Society. It's not going to hurt birds and certainly far fewer birds would die because of this than because of an oil plant. So virtually every environmental caveat, if you will, in this thing has been shot down over the last few years. I think the overwhelming feeling now is that this is an environmentally good project. It does have drawbacks as any big project has, but overwhelmingly it will improve the environment unknowingly. And, again, I didn't start out with that view. This was just a good story. We had no bias. If it comes out looking like Jim Gordon, who's the principle of Cape Wind, and the other people look good, that's just because the way the facts rolled down. We just thought it was a great story.

Monica Trauzzi: So who should be reading this book? Who did you write it for?

Robert Whitcomb: Well, I think we wrote it for the general public. As you probably noticed from reading it, it's not really a policy wonk thing. I think some policy wonk people could enjoy it, but it's really -- it's almost a kind of nonfiction novel. It's the story of what happens when one guy has a vision and he unwittingly finds himself opposed to some of the most powerful people in the country and his education in this process and his flaws and all. He's not perfect. And something about the history of this battle, the rich and colorful history, not only of the region where they want to put these windmills, in the middle of Nantucket Sound, but the whole country, the environmental history of the country. You know Theodore Roosevelt's in it, Theodore Roosevelt the fourth who turns out to be the Cape Wind financial guy. He's the guy who's going to go to Wall Street and try to sell the bonds. So we just thought it was a great story with a lot of great characters, a melange of history people who are interested in history will like this book, because there's a lot of history in it as you know. I mean the history of the American summer resort and environment and energy and so on. So it's more of an entertainment, but if they get some lessons in the way our system works as opposed to the way we say it works, then we'll be happy.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, it's a good read and I thank you for coming on the show.

Robert Whitcomb: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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