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Politics shape Cape Wind debate

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was one of the most powerful opponents of the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm.

“This is not a decision about money,” Romney said during a 2004 West Yarmouth public hearing on the project. “It’s not even a decision about power. It is a decision about our environment, about the legacy we leave our children. It is a heritage given to us by God. We may not, we cannot, trash this extraordinary resource that the Cape enjoys.”

Whether Romney could stop Cape Wind if elected president in November is unclear, although the proposal to build 130 wind turbines in the Sound has benefited from the solid support of the current administration.

Cape Wind’s opponents argue that President Barack Obama’s fingerprints are all over the company’s recent permitting successes and that he even pushed privately for approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the president’s support for renewable energy projects has been roundly criticized by those who say he is willing to go “green” at any cost.

“Cape Wind to me is somewhat of an irritant,” said Osterville property owner and billionaire William Koch, who has contributed $4 million to Romney’s campaign.

Koch said he views Cape Wind in two ways: “No, 1, it’s visual pollution. For some reason in Massachusetts that doesn’t count for much.”

The second problem: Cape Wind’s power costs too much, he said.

“Cape Wind has to get a price that is 2.5 times the current market price,” he said.

National environmental groups say that the extra cost of renewable energy is necessary to help mitigate climate change and to level the playing field given subsidies and other artificial support for carbon-based fuels.

And now, the debate over fossil fuels and renewables may be further clouded by Hurricane Sandy’s widespread impact, which environmentalists blame on climate change caused by human activities.

Neither presidential campaign returned messages seeking comment for this story. But Romney’s energy platform has focused on support for fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, rather than on renewable energy projects. Generally, the only time Romney or his surrogates mention renewable energy is when they deride the Obama administration’s missteps, such as the Department of Energy’s approval for a $535 million loan guarantee for the now-bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.

There are other things more important than renewables, Romney supporters say.

“He’s for putting together clean energy, but the first thing we have to do is we have to get people back to work,” West Tisbury Republican Town Committee chairman Jim Powell said.

Powell has put 6,000 miles on his car working on Romney’s campaign and has spoken with the candidate several times, including at an August fundraiser on the Vineyard, he said.

Once Romney fixes the economy, private funding will be available for renewable energy projects, Powell said.

“It’s not about politics; it’s about the economy,” he said.

Wind energy proponents say separating politics from the economy is not so easy. Romney’s campaign, for example, has said he would let a tax credit for wind energy expire if he were elected president.

“Our thought is whoever is president is going to want to keep 37,000 jobs,” said Peter Kelley, vice president of public affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. “This one tax credit turns out to be very important when it comes to keeping wind growing and keeping a lot of people employed.”

Romney’s position might evolve if he’s elected, Kelley said. And campaign contributions may play a role as well, he said.

Although Cape Wind’s primary opposition group – the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound – is not allowed to support a particular candidate, Koch, one of Romney’s top five donors, is also one of the alliance’s biggest supporters.

Koch is the founder and CEO of energy conglomerate Oxbow Carbon and is known locally for his work as chairman of the alliance. He has donated millions of dollars to the group and to lobbying efforts against Cape Wind.

His reasons for supporting Romney, however, are broader than his opposition to Cape Wind, Koch said last week.

“I think Obama’s trying to socialize this country,” he said about over-regulation. “Obama said you can be in the coal business, but you’ll go bankrupt.”

Koch said his company invests between $100 million and $500 million each year, but that he would not make future investments in the United States in the face of burdensome regulations.

Koch has spent a lot of money to fight Cape Wind while at the same time lobbying the federal government to support his own fossil fuel interests, Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said.

Koch admits he profited from government regulations that required the purchase of renewable energy power when he owned geothermal, wood fire and co-generation plants in the past, but said that alternative energy can’t compete with fossil fuels without subsidies or regulations.

“When you boil it down, people want cheap energy,” said Koch, who thinks the “apocalypse of global warming” is unproven. “When I was in alternative energy, I used all those BS arguments to sell my product so I understand it very well.”

Romney supports sensible renewable energy projects rather than green energy at all costs, which is the Obama administration’s position, alliance president and CEO Audra Parker said. She and other environmental spokespersons declined to comment extensively on the campaign because of their groups’ nonprofit tax status.

As governor, Romney promoted state investments in clean energy and even wrote a letter to New York Gov. George Pataki seeking to kick start a regional cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, said Ian Bowles, former Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs under Romney’s successor, Gov. Deval Patrick.

“I concur that climate change is beginning to … (affect) our natural resources and that now is the time to take action towards climate protection,” Romney wrote in the 2003 letter. This language runs counter to Romney’s attitude when he joked about climate change at the Republican National Convention, Bowles said.

“Obviously for someone who cares about clean energy, I certainly liked Gov. Romney more than I like presidential candidate Romney,” Bowles said.

The election’s outcome is unlikely to affect Cape Wind at this point, Bowles said.

“The larger thing that’s at stake for the U.S.,” he said, “is whether we continue down the road that some appear to want to take us toward, of being the only industrialized country in the world that is debating whether climate change is real and the only industrialized country in the world that is not making a significant investment in renewable energy.”