Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part VI: The Cape Wind Project as a Lesson in Cultural Resource Protection

By Andrea Lang Clifford, Policy Analyst

In a lot of ways, tribes should embrace renewable energy both to combat the devastating effects of climate change and to boost tribal economies. Occasionally, however, renewable energy development raises concerns about preservation of important tribal cultural resources. Where such conflicts come up in the context of a federal agency decision (such as whether to grant a federal permit or lease federal land), agencies must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which I explained in detail in the last post in this series. To review, the NHPA requires federal agencies to consult with interested parties–including tribes–regarding the effects of federally approved or developed projects on historic and cultural property. The final two posts of this blog series on “Tribes & Renewables” will explore two examples of how federal agencies have implemented the NHPA for proposed renewable energy projects. Today’s post explores tribal cultural resource protection issues that arose in the Cape Wind Project and explains how NHPA implementation for Cape Wind can serve as a lesson to federal agencies in the future. 

The Cape Wind Project and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head

The Cape Wind Project is a proposed offshore wind farm for the Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. As proposed, the project would include 130 turbines over a 25-square mile area, with a total capacity of 468 MW. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency responsible for leasing and permitting the project, it would supply up to 75% of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket’s electricity. 

Credit: BOEM
Among the many groups that have opposed Cape Wind for the past 15 years is the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. “Wampanoag” literally means “People of the First Light,” and part of the tribe’s religious practice involves a dawn ceremony with a view of the sunrise over the Sound. In addition, the area the Sound occupies used to be dry land, and the tribe believes that archeological remains are present in the bed of the Sound. 

Because BOEM needed to issue a lease and federal permits for the project to move forward, the Cape Wind Project triggered the NHPA section 106 consultation requirements. As the last post in this series explained, that process requires federal agencies to consult with tribes to assess and resolve adverse effects of the project, although it does not direct the agency to protect cultural resources. 

Unfortunately, in the case of the Cape Wind Project, BOEM simply waited too long to begin consulting with the Wampanoag Tribe about the effects of the project on the tribe’s cultural resources. The tribe was naturally concerned that the large number of 440 foot turbine blades would obstruct culturally significant views of the Sound and that construction of the project would disturb archeological remains in the bed of the Sound. However, BOEM did not begin the process of identifying and resolving these potentially adverse effects until seven years after the project had been proposed and after the details of the project had already essentially been decided. This delay meant BOEM could not consider alternative sites when it began consultation, and it resulted in BOEM recommending mitigation measures that included half-measures such as painting the turbines an off-white color to help them blend into the background, a solution completely untenable for the tribe. 

According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (Council), BOEM’s NHPA consultation on the Cape Wind Project was “tentative, inconsistent, and late,” and as a result, it did not adequately consider ways to mitigate the project’s effects. Importantly, the Council noted that “the development of renewable energy projects is not inherently incompatible with protection of historic resources, so long as full consideration is given to historic properties early in the identification of potential locations [and that] selection of nearby alternatives might result in far fewer adverse effects…” However, in the case of Cape Wind, BOEM did not actually give full consideration.

Cape Wind as a Lesson to Federal Agencies

While it is true that the NHPA is a purely procedural statute that does not mandate substantive protection for cultural resources, that does not mean that federal agencies should treat NHPA consultation as red tape. Consultation under the NHPA is meant to inform decision making, resulting in better substantive results through procedural means. If BOEM had consulted earlier in the Cape Wind project, as the Council recommended, it might have considered alternative nearby sites that would have addressed some of the Wampanoag Tribe’s concerns. 

Credit: PNNL
Besides Cape Wind-specific concerns, agencies should have an interest more generally in ensuring that tribes have a voice and a real seat at the table when it comes to consulting over cultural resource protection. Tribes may begin to view renewable energy projects more skeptically if agencies repeat the late and tentative consultation that occurred in the case of the Cape Wind Project. This would be an unfortunate result, given the amount of federal land in the United States that is rich in renewable energy resources and the likelihood that some of these future projects will raise cultural resource protection concerns. 

To foster a positive relationship with tribes on future renewable energy projects as well as positive results in protecting cultural resources, federal agencies should learn from Cape Wind and ensure that consultation begins early and earnestly. The final post in this series will provide another example of NHPA implementation and suggest more ways federal agencies can ensure that renewable energy projects move forward with minimal conflict.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Bright Future, Part II: Potential Setbacks

By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern

In Part I of this blog series I addressed the changing political climate in the United States and abroad. Between the Clean Power Plan, last year’s climate change conference in Paris, and the ambitious goals set by Canada, Mexico and the US at this year’s North American Leaders’ Summit, world leaders are demonstrating their much needed commitment to a sustainable future in energy.

Part II of this series discusses how powerful forces in the US have shown much resistance to the movement toward renewable energy.

Attacks On Renewable Energy Policy

Fossil fuel and utility companies play a large role in financing attacks on clean energy policies. As clean energy alternatives gain more traction, companies selling coal, oil and gas are doing whatever they can to delay the growth of this mounting competition in the energy marketplace. These sustainable resources are becoming cheaper every year and are expected to continue doing so. As such, some entities view renewable energy as a significant threat to global reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the primary methods used by these fossil fuel proponents is the funding of front groups that serve to add seemingly independent voices to the anti-clean energy platform. One report suggests that these front groups, motivated by financial and political interests, are attacking the practice of net metering and the use of renewable energy standards in order to make switching to renewable energy less affordable and less appealing.

For example, the Edison Electric Institute (a trade association representing all US investor-owned electric companies, i.e. the entire utility industry) launched a campaign in recent years to repeal or weaken net metering laws. EEI issued a report criticizing net metering as “not fair” and arguing that not only do the customers using distributed generation (DG) systems avoid paying for the utility’s power since they produce their own, they also avoid paying for the fixed costs of the grid. These efforts function to spread biased information about the impact of solar on the grid; though EEI correctly pointed out that rooftop solar passes inflated costs onto other ratepayers, it neglects to weigh any associated benefits. For example, recent research by the Brookings Institution found that distributed solar systems (e.g. rooftop solar) and net metering, more often than not, actually provide a net benefit to ratepayers, meaning the benefit to all ratepayers exceeds what solar customers receive in net-metering credits. A report by the Frontier Group and Environment America found that distributed solar offers net benefits to the entire electric grid through reduced capital investment costs, avoided energy costs, and reduced environmental compliance costs.

While regulators and utilities do need to work together to develop strategies to efficiently integrate DG technologies into the grid, instituting a fair utility cost-recovery strategy does not need to simultaneously weaken or eliminate net metering policies. Unfortunately, in 2015 alone, utility interests successfully weakened net metering policies in at least 16 states.
In a developed and educated society, these financially motivated efforts ideally should do no more than delay the inevitable. The shift to renewable energy is a logical and necessary step on the path to mitigating the harm we have caused to this planet and its inhabitants. In

Part III I will discuss various political views on climate change and how those views may shape energy policy in the U.S., especially following the 2016 Presidential election.