FAA certifies — again — Cape Wind won’t threaten air traffic

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012

Federal regulators yesterday certified that an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound would not endanger air traffic in the area, reiterating its determination for the fourth time after local activists won a procedural challenge to an earlier version.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s “determination of no hazard” for Cape Wind’s 130 turbines proposed for federal waters offshore Massachusetts clears the final regulatory hurdle for the project, although it still faces court challenges and congressional investigations, needs to secure financing, and continues to seek a buyer for nearly a quarter of its power.

FAA determined that the proposed construction of the turbines, “individually and as a group, has no effect on aeronautical operations” and therefore “poses no hazard to air navigation,” according to the 12-page determination.

Cape Wind praised the decision, noting in a statement that it is the fourth time since 2002 that FAA has ruled the project will not threaten air traffic. A company spokesman pointed to comments in support of the project from Cape Air, the largest commercial user of airspace over Cape Cod, and emphasized that the project is the only proposed offshore wind farm in U.S. waters to receive all required state and federal permits.

“Cape Wind is now closer to creating the public benefits of cleaner air, greater energy independence and new jobs,” spokesman Mark Rodgers said in a statement. “Cape Wind will jump start America’s offshore wind industry and make Massachusetts a global leader in offshore wind.”

A previous no hazard determination for the project was vacated by a federal appeals court earlier this year following a petition from the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a local group that has fought Cape Wind at every turn for the last decade, and other local opponents such as the town of Barnstable, which worried the project could threaten flights in and out of its small airport (E&ENews PM, Oct. 28, 2011).

The latest determination is likely to face another court fight, alliance President Audra Parker said yesterday.

“No pilot or passenger should allow this politically-drive[n] decision to stand,” Parker said in a statement. “This decision can once again be appealed. With one victory behind us, there is no reason to believe we won’t win again.”

The court ruled that FAA ignored internal guidelines requiring an analysis of flights relying on visual navigation. In the new determination, FAA maintained that such an analysis was unnecessary because the turbines were less than 500 feet tall. Nevertheless, it commissioned an outside firm to complete a visual navigation analysis, which concluded that the project would not adversely affect such operations.

The project has signed contracts to sell 77.5 percent of the electricity from the 468-megawatt project and has “commenced” its financing stage, Rodgers said. Last month, Cape Wind launched its first phase of geological and geophysical surveys at the project site, aiming to begin construction next year (Greenwire, July 5).

The project is still subject to a separate suite of lawsuits from the alliance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and others challenging federal approvals of the project under a variety of laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

Congressional Republicans also have launched an investigation into the FAA approval, building on internal emails obtained by the alliance that critics say show political pressure from the Obama administration caused FAA reviewers to ignore safety considerations. Project defenders note that the project also won approval under Republican President George W. Bush and has faced no shortage of politically powerful opponents on both sides of the aisle.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) last month wrote to FAA demanding answers to charges of political interference (Greenwire, July 18). Spokesmen for the committees did not immediately respond to requests for comment.