Their Views On Offshore Wind Are All About the Views
November 28, 2023
It should come as no surprise that Rhode Island’s epicenter of wealth and excess is unwilling to put up with even the slightest inconvenience — no bigger than the size of an average thumb — to help address the climate crisis.
For the most part, the wealthy and the privileged don’t care that Black, brown, and poor white communities shoulder the burden of our nation’s energy production and the associated impacts of the climate crisis. They fail to recognize the ability to remain unchanged in this time of increasing torment is an advantage not shared equally. They believe they have the money and power to escape the worst, so screw everybody and everything else. Ocean views matter more than the lives of others. Extravagant history is more important than the future.
That is essentially the theme of federal lawsuits recently filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the Preservation Society of Newport County. On Nov. 22, a few days after an estimated 1.1 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, the nonprofit that aggrandizes the lavish Gilded Age mansions of robber barons announced its concern with the Revolution and South Fork offshore wind projects.
The lawsuits allege the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) “improperly approved wind farms that will damage historic resources within the City of Newport.”
They’re talking about ocean views being ruined.
In reality, the damages that will be worsened by our continued reliance on the burning of fossil fuels — sea level rise and flooding, for example — should be a far greater concern for a city surrounded by water.
“Federal law makes clear that the ‘viewsheds’ of historic resources are as important as bricks and mortar,” according to the Preservation Society lawsuits. “These appeals seek to preserve historic and pristine views from industrial-scale development.”
Offshore wind turbines are visible if they are closer than 40 miles away. However, between 25 and 40 miles from shore they become hard to distinguish, according to Real Offshore Wind, a collaboration of professors, researchers, and students from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island studying the impacts off offshore wind. (The Real Offshore Wind website also addresses a host of other questions about offshore wind.)
The image above depicts a simulation of the wind turbines’ appearance from a section of the Cliff Walk for Revolution Wind, the offshore wind project that will be closest to the New England coastline, nearly 15 miles away from Rhode Island. The simulation was provided by the developer, Ørsted, to BOEM for the project’s final environmental impact statement. The maximum number of wind turbines planned was originally 100 but is now 65, spaced a nautical mile (1.2 miles) apart.
From the shore, the project’s 65 turbines will appear to be about 2 inches tall, roughly the length of an adult human thumb.
“We support green energy,” Trudy Coxe, the Preservation Society’s CEO, says in the press release announcing the lawsuits. Sure, as long as no renewable energy project of size is sited anywhere near Bellevue Avenue, Ocean Drive, or Ochre Point.
She goes on to say that, “Green energy projects need not come at the unnecessary loss to our community’s irreplaceable character and sense of place. For more than a century millions of people have visited Newport to walk Cliff Walk, enjoy our beautiful beaches and tour Ocean Drive. These historic resources deserve the due process mandated by federal law.”
In March 2022 coastal erosion knocked out 30 feet of the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile paved trail that winds its way along robber baron opulence. Nine months later, a smaller section of the path was washed away. Sea level in Newport has risen about 6 inches over the past 50 years and is projected to rise another 10-12 inches in the next 30 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The city’s Cliff Walk webpage notes that due to structural damage to a section of the path, detours will be in place between Narragansett Avenue and Webster Street “for the foreseeable future.”
So while city officials continue to ponder whether to continuously rebuild the Cliff Walk, at taxpayer expense, or retreat, let’s delay renewable energy projects by filing lawsuits because some monied views could be slighted by a sea of thumbs a dozen or so miles away.
Talk about misplaced priorities. Continue to degrade the atmosphere that has allowed our species to survive and thrive to protect viewsheds for the well-heeled. Let lesser communities continue to sacrifice for the benefit of the self-centered.
After the lawsuits were announced, a former Newport City Council member emailed her anti-wind crew this message: “Surprising and great news!!!!”
The 11-term council member, who lives in a neighborhood that sits between Ocean Drive and the Newport Country Club, has long represented the interests of splendor.
A group of Rhode Island organizations representing the local environmental, scientific, and labor communities sent a letter Nov. 27 to Coxe in response to the Preservation Society’s appeals, calling on her “to immediately withdraw” the lawsuits.
They sent the letter “because the visual effects of tourists and Newport residents having to see offshore wind farms a dozen miles off the coast are simply not comparable to the impacts of the climate crisis and continued fossil fuel use. … The project’s jobs and many other benefits would be sabotaged by the lawsuit you have filed, as would the future that our children inherit. To do so in the name of historical preservation is dishonorable. Your action reflects the energy privilege available to only some members of our society.”
Full disclosure: I am not an agent or paid influencer for the offshore wind industry. Like all energy sources, offshore wind comes with concerns and impacts that need to be studied and addressed. It must be sited responsibly. But offshore wind, like all other renewable energy sources, has to be part of our energy future if we want to power society and kick our nasty addiction to fossil fuels.
Offshore wind projects need to be transparent, and the companies, many of them closely tied to the fossil fuel industry, should be scrutinized. Turbines shouldn’t be carelessly plopped into the sea in some willy-nilly fashion. But these entreaties calling for no offshore wind, at least not in the waters close to where I live, are uncaring and ignorant.
In the Preservation Society’s lawsuit press release, Will Cook, a partner at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in historic preservation and the Newport nonprofit’s counsel for offshore wind, says:
“Our federal laws must be enforced as Congress intended and all adverse effects minimized or mitigated as required by law. In rushing to issue permits for these massive energy development projects, BOEM skipped steps and failed to meet its legal obligations. Our appeals highlight BOEM’s errors and ask that the process be done correctly. The people of Newport County deserve better.”
Early last year, the Cultural Heritage Partners attorney suggested to the Newport City Council that the City-by-the-Sea was sitting on a multimillion-dollar jackpot, according to a story in The Newport Daily News.
“The technology as it changes is in the direction of taller and taller wind turbines,” Cook is quoted. “Newport has historically enjoyed unimpeded ocean views similar to the island of Nantucket, which is also one of our clients.”
He told the council his law firm negotiated “a financial mitigation settlement in the form of a community benefits fund that will help offset some of the costs of adverse effects that Vineyard Wind is going to cause.”
Those adverse impacts basically amount to minimally altered viewscapes for the inhabitants of the wealthy enclave and the temporary inconvenience caused by burying power cables. (Vineyard Wind is 15 miles south of Nantucket and 35 miles from mainland Massachusetts.)
Spider webs of methane and oil pipelines, electricity lines, and telecommunication cables — both buried and above ground — crisscross the United States.
The Vineyard Wind developer had offered Nantucket $350,000 to offset those inconveniences, but Cook bragged, “We were able to get that number up to the range of $34.4 million.”
The City Council voted unanimously to hire Cultural Heritage Partners to represent Newport.
And we wonder why renewable energy costs are often higher.
Fossil fuel corporations aren’t litigated into paying even $350,000 — never mind $34 million — to the residents of Cancer Alley in Louisiana, those living in the two neighborhoods that abut the Port of Providence, and the countless other voiceless communities that bear the brunt of U.S. power-producing pollution.
In fact, those marginalized communities and the natural world will be experiencing more destruction. This year, which is extremely likely to be the hottest on record, the United States is poised to extract more oil and methane than ever before.
This country’s status as the world’s leading oil and gas behemoth has only strengthened during the past 12 months, with the latest federal government forecast showing a record 12.9 million barrels of crude oil, more than double what was produced a decade ago, to be extracted in 2023, according to a recent story in The Guardian.
Cultural Heritage Partners also represents the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation (SELF), which owns and manages Block Island’s most historic structure. The New Shoreham-based organization puts the self in selfishness.
“A world-renowned symbol of Block Island’s rich cultural heritage, the Southeast Light is among numerous historic resources that the government has failed to protect from what BOEM itself concedes are significant negative impacts of the industrialization of the seascape,” according to SELF’s press release announcing its two lawsuits.
The further industrialization of the ocean — from renewable energy development to oil and methane extraction to commercial fishing — is a concern that certainly needs to be acknowledged and accounted for, but how does that impact a lighthouse? Are the wind turbines going to find the warning light annoying and attack? The Revolution Wind turbines will be about 15 miles east of New Shoreham and the South Fork turbines will be nearly 20 miles southeast, so the chances of one falling on the Block Island beacon are slim.
SELF’s lawsuits note Block Island “is awakening to the reality that the number of visible turbines off its coast will soon grow from five to as many as 599.”
The organization’s executive director, Lisa Nolan, emphasized the need to balance renewable energy with the importance of preserving Block Island’s sense of place and its economy, which relies significantly on heritage tourism.
“It seems unfair to place all potential risks on our historic community while the developer reaps the rewards,” she said.
SELF should be more self-aware about the impacts the changing climate is having on Southeast Light. Built in 1873, the lighthouse was moved back 300 feet from the Block Island shoreline 120 years later. It will likely have to be moved again.
Severe erosion along Mohegan Bluffs is an extreme example of what is occurring along Block Island’s coastline. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy severed Corn Neck Road. The road, which serves as a sort of main artery to essential services on the island, is now prone to increased flooding from tides, storms, and sea level rise.
Fossil fuel CEOs and shareholders have long reaped the rewards of their products’ decades-long destructive behavior, which is having a far greater impact on Block Island than any wind turbine will. Last year the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations enjoyed record-breaking profits. Five companies alone — BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies — reported a total of nearly $200 billion in profits.
While fossil fuel executives count their cash, lead global climate talks, and serve in the U.S. Cabinet, the world is incurring significant financial losses caused by prolonged drought, extreme flooding, record heat waves, and dwindling drinking water supplies.
People are being left homeless by extreme weather. Disasters, many caused directly or indirectly from the burning of fossil fuels, triggered 32.6 million new internal displacements in 2022, making it the highest figure in a decade and 41% higher than the annual average of the past decade.
But, sure, having to deal with faintly adjusted ocean views is unfair.
To his credit, Dr. Gerry Abbott, chairman of the SELF board, cuts to the chase.
“Block Island is obviously not anti-Wind Energy,” he says in the Nov. 22 press release. “We were the first town in the US to host a fully built offshore wind farm. But imagining the visual impact of an 11,000% increase in the number of visible turbines off our Coast — and knowing they will remain for the next 30 years — is nothing short of stunning … a complete industrialization of our ocean view.”
Well, at least this anti-wind pushback didn’t hide behind faux concern for whales.
Note: I didn’t want to write another column about anti-wind hysterics, but the selfishness infuriates me. I wish they would spend their time and energy actually trying to help address the worldwide geophysical transformation our unabating burning of fossil fuels has set in motion. If you are interested, the other two columns I have written about this issue can be found here and here.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.