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Baker board denies Cape Wind permit extension; Decision seen as setback to project’s revival

A board dominated by appointees of Gov. Charlie Baker dealt a major blow on Wednesday to efforts to revive Cape Wind, voting unanimously not to grant the project a permit extension for construction of a transmission line between the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm and Barnstable.

The decision means Cape Wind will either have to challenge the board’s ruling in court or start from scratch in seeking regulatory approval for the transmission line, both of which would be time-consuming. Cape Wind officials got up and left the meeting before its formal conclusion, so their next course of action was unclear.

It appeared the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board had already made up its mind prior to Wednesday’s meeting to approve a staff recommendation denying another extension. There was almost no discussion among board members prior to the vote and one member came with a prepared statement that reflected the board’s ultimate decision.

“I sincerely hope that today’s decision is in no way interpreted as the siting board being unsupportive of offshore wind energy,” said Angela O’Connor, the chair of the Department of Public Utilities and a member of the siting board. “Massachusetts has significant untapped potential for this renewable resource. As construction costs decrease and the technology continues to improve, developers should be able to bring viable, cost-effective offshore wind projects to market.”
That’s exactly what Cape Wind officials said they were trying to do. While the project lost two power purchase contracts early last year because of an inability to line up financing, Cape Wind officials were hoping a renewed push on Beacon Hill for legislation supporting offshore wind power would give them a chance to get the wind farm back on track.

Cape Wind officials said none of the background conditions and regulations associated with the transmission line approval had changed. Board officials, while conceding they were not aware of any changes, said Cape Wind had not performed due diligence in reviewing the matter. The board also concluded that, even if the extension was granted to May 2017, it was unlikely Cape Wind would be able to begin construction by then.

“Facts and background conditions cited in this proceeding, some going back more than a decade, are simply no longer reliable or tenable for a further extension of the Energy Facilities Siting Board-issued permit and approvals,” O’Connor said in her statement. “If Cape Wind wishes to continue to pursue the development of its project, it must come back to the board with a new petition, a thorough, up-to-date filing, and fresh facts.”

Cape Wind’s attorney, Charles Dougherty, said the key reason the wind farm needed the extension was because of the relentless legal challenges filed by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which is funded primarily by wealthy landowners on Cape Cod who don’t want to look at wind turbines from their ocean-front homes.

“A denial of the extension today will give them what they had sought,” Dougherty said.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound issued a statement calling the board’s decision “a major setback for Cape Wind.”

Matthew Beaton, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs and the chair of the siting board, said he had not discussed the vote in any detail with Baker prior to the meeting. “He’s aware of today’s proceedings,” Beaton said of the governor. “We didn’t really discuss it in any great detail.”

Baker in the past has been a strong, vocal opponent of Cape Wind. In 2010, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor against Deval Patrick, he called the power purchase contracts Cape Wind signed with two of the state’s utilities sweetheart deals. Many lawmakers who support offshore wind nevertheless oppose Cape Wind because of all the political baggage it brings with it from 12 years of fighting lawsuits by opponents.