By Doug Struck
The Daily Climate
BOSTON – Once had a cur, a mutt with an attitude. Mutt hated the basset hound next door, and feeling was mutual. No leash laws in the South then, so the dogs mixed it up at will.
The two fought for a decade. Ripped ears nearly off. Gashed eyes. Lots of blood. Lots of stitches.
Toward the end, they got old. Mostly, by then, it was ritual. The two raged and frothed all over each other, on their hind legs like bears. Then one would saddle the other’s back, cross-wise. Exhausted. They would stand there, locked in their hatred, paralyzed in their fatigue. Growling. Looking sidewise for someone – anyone – to come grab them by the necks and drag them apart. Neither won.
Jim Gordon wants to win. He has been locked in a bitter dogfight to try to create the nation’s first in-the-water wind farm off Cape Cod. For more than a decade, every time he thought he was making headway, there was Bill Koch, rich coal magnate, in the disguise of various opponents, nipping his flanks, snapping at his throat.
Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates, takes questions at a press conference announcing the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement from federal Minerals and Management Service in January, 2009. Production still courtesy Cape Spin.
They have fought up and down the court systems, through the local, state and federal bureaucracies, in the media, and in the back rooms and open chambers of legislatures, each directing armies and allies in attack.
But one thing remains: the waters off Cape Cod rise and fall, still empty of the 440-foot turbines of Gordon’s dreams. His opponents crow that’s a victory.
“We have been fighting this successfully for thirteen years. The project does not belong in Nantucket Sound,” said his most public nemesis, Audra Parker, who heads a group that Gordon calls a shill for billionaire Koch.
And while Gordon waves off questions as to whether Parker gets under his skin, a hint of his frustration shows when he refers to her “latest jihad.”
Indeed, Jim Gordon has reason to be pissed. His plan to put a modest wind farm in Nantucket Sound has been on the drawing boards for 13 years. What’s a guy got to do to build the first offshore wind project in the United States?
26 legal challenges
He has, by his count, faced 26 legal challenges, and won every one of them, save for a few niggling technical rulings. He has overcome a veritable buffet of bureaucracies, from the local Cape Cod Commission to state regulators to a full monty of federal agencies – Interior, EPA, DOE, Army Corps of Engineers, FAA, FERC, to name a few. Throw in a tussle with the Wampanoag native American tribe for good measure.
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The list of foes, fighting for or with Koch, would send most developers scrambling for cover. At one time or another, Gordon has been opposed by the renowned Edward Kennedy, the skeptical Cape Cod Commission, the beloved Walter Cronkite, the impeccable Massachusetts Audubon, the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Network, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown and Robert Kennedy Jr.
“There are certainly easier ways to make a living,” Gordon concedes dryly.
Success at hand
At 61, Gordon remains unbowed. Success, he predicts, is at hand. Next year construction will begin on at least 100 of the planned 130 wind turbines to be placed six miles offshore to provide clean energy for most of Cape Cod. He says this with the zeal and conviction of a True Believer.
He has said that before, he concedes, but this time he insists there are no other major delays on the horizon.
(Two days later, a Texas congressman got the House of Representatives to ban, via an appropriations bill rider, a federal loan guarantee supporting Cape Wind. The Senate dismissed the stunt, but the surprise move had echoes of what Gordon calls “my worst day” in 2006: He woke up to learn the congressman and a senator from Alaska, another big oil state, had slipped a line into a Coast Guard bill killing Cape Wind. That, too, eventually was reversed.)
“We are very close. I definitely think the project will be built,” Gordon said in an interview this summer in his Boston office.
Gordon has the tight control of an assassin, scoped on his target, calm, serious, strategic. In person, slim and fit. A direct gaze. Hair grayed through the battle. He studied communications at Boston University years ago and has retained the lessons: always on-message, unflustered by the provocative question. Steers it back to the why of wind power.
He insists he has pushed the cutting edge of technology ever since he sold cable television door-to-door while a college kid in the early 1970s, lugging around a plastic box with 36 buttons and wires to hook up to TVs. His millions were made developing natural gas power plants, a technology he said was vastly cleaner than coal plants of the time.
He serves as a contrast to Koch, his flamboyant foe, who last year bought a second Cape Cod mansion – a gated estate sold by the Mellon banking tycoon heirs – and has poured more than $5 million into Parker’s Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, even as he flutters around the country with other projects – bankrolling the pursuit of wine counterfeiters, for example.
While Bill Koch’s brothers, Charles and David, have become the liberals’ boogeymen for their millions spent on the Tea Party and arch-conservative causes, Bill Koch has played the eccentric billionaire, sailing to the America’s Cup victory in 1992, collecting Western memorabilia, fine wine, wives and mistresses, and running a gas- and-coal-mining company.
The two men have met, talked, dined, and debated over wine through the years. They even offer grudging respect to their opposite. In interviews for a 2013 Commonwealth Magazine story, Koch allowed that Gordon is a “brilliant marketer” and Gordon called Koch “a very amiable guy.”
Despite his careful control, Gordon is a lightning rod for controversy. He has been hailed by environmentalists, excoriated on conservative talk shows, and accused variously of trying to destroy a natural treasure, reap undeserved riches, kill birds, stymie fishermen, interfere with Air Force flights and Indian religions and gut tourism on Cape Cod.
Gordon will pounce on each of those arguments, if given the chance. But what’s at the root of all this fierce opposition? “It boils down simply to one thing: NIMBYism – not in my backyard,” he says. “Some of the wealthiest, most politically influential people in the world” simply don’t want to see wind turbines as they gaze out from their verandas.
Indeed, the Kennedys, noted residents and sailors in those parts, tripped over their famously silver tongues to explain why they support clean energy but not this clean energy. Gordon insists the windmills will be specks on the horizon, not the eyesores that his opponents conjure up.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people think wind turbines are majestic and awe-inspiring and beautiful,” he says. “The Biblical irony is that those folks that are fighting it have the most to lose. Beaches are eroding down there. More intense and frequent storms. The oceans are warming the Earth. Habitat is migrating to colder waters. Everything that makes the Cape ‘Cape Cod.’
“One of the reasons we have pursued this project for so long is that we believe that this nation – this world – needs to transform away from fossil fuels to a more sustainable energy future,” he adds. “Any person that has children or grandchildren and cares about future generations, they are going to try, if they can, to provide a better world.”
In that, he has the support of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the Obama Administration. Patrick helped engineer a deal to guarantee the purchase of Cape Wind’s power by the regional utilities, whose chieftains understood the political winds and signed on even though the offshore wind they will buy costs twice as much as today’s electricity.
nullMore offshore wind
And the Obama Administration is hoping to parlay Gordon’s hard-won legal victories to open the regulatory gates to more offshore wind farms. It has designated 1.5 million acres off the Atlantic coast for wind development, and recently put up 343,000 acres for wind power leases off New Jersey.
Parker, of course, doesn’t share the enthusiasm. “The public could buy three times the associated benefits for the same price tag as Cape Wind. It’s a project that didn’t make any sense and it makes less sense now,” she says.
For his doggedness, Gordon has won the applause of environmentalists. Sue Reid, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, which has helped battle for Cape Wind, recalls musing “this is a big thinker” when she met Gordon a decade ago. Over the years, she has seen him both calm and “borderline apoplectic,” and her admiration has grown.
“I would not have said this back then, but Jim Gordon has become one of my heroes because of my respect for his tenacity,” she concedes.
Away from the klieg lights on Cape Wind, however, Gordon’s image as an environmental crusader is a bit more fuzzy. Even Reid has quarreled with him: When Gordon’s energy company proposed a diesel-fired power plant right across from a public elementary school in the low-income Boston neighborhood of Chelsea in 2006, Reid’s group joined other public interest law firms and helped local residents mount a legal and noisy opposition.
“People were upset,” said Eugene Benson, who was one of the pro-bono lawyers for the neighborhood. But Gordon’s company “was not interested in backing down.”
Chelsea residents won the fight, but then Gordon’s Energy Management Inc. proposed a natural gas power plant for Westfield, another gritty Massachusetts town. Staci Rubin, a lawyer for Alternatives for Community and Environment, accuses Energy Management of “a pattern of discriminating, looking for places where people don’t have the political power to push back against these polluting power plants.”
Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Energy Management, shoots back that the envisioned Westfield plant would be “the cleanest, most efficient natural gas power plant in New England,” and is supported by the mayor and city council.
Another of Gordon’s pet projects, a biomass power plant near Gainesville, Fla., that burns wood chips, also roiled residents there and faced several years of delays before it started up last summer.
“There is always opposition,” Gordon shrugged, while showing off poster-sized photos of the wood plant at his office.
Gordon doesn’t even pause in saying he would launch the Cape Wind fight all over again, if given the chance. Even though, he admits, “over a 14-year period there have been … not moments, but weeks and months of frustration, and doubt, and, in some cases at the lowest points, despair and second-guessing.”
For Gordon, the wind farm seems a personal high-water mark, something he wants as a personal legacy. He intends to win.
“Let me tell you one of the best days for me,” he said. “In the early days of Cape Wind we did a lot of public hearings. The last hearing for the year was in Cambridge, Massachusetts at MIT. My 14-year-old son attended that hearing with me, and he saw people stand up and speak, say very heartfelt things about the potential of this project. I remember my 14-year-old son saying, ‘Dad I’m really proud of you.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Doug Struck is a freelance writer based in Boston. He covered climate change issues for The Washington Post and is a frequent contributor to The Daily Climate.
The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org