Bonackers vs. Big Wind
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s preposterous renewable-energy plan threatens Long Island’s fishing industry.
Nat Miller and Jim Bennett didn’t have much time to chat. It was about 8:45 on a sunny Sunday morning in early May, and they were loading their gear onto two boats—a 20-foot skiff with a 115-horsepower outboard, and an 18-foot sharpie with a 50-horse outboard—at Lazy Point, on the southern edge of Napeague Bay, on the South Fork of Long Island. “We are working against the wind and the tide,” Miller said as he shook my hand.
The men had already caught a fluke the size of a doormat and were eager for more. Miller and Bennett are Bonackers, a name for a small group of families who were among eastern Long Island’s earliest Anglo settlers. The Bonackers are some of America’s most storied fishermen. They’ve been profiled several times, most vividly by Peter Matthiessen in his 1986 book Men’s Lives. Miller’s roots in the area go back 13 generations, Bennett’s 14. That morning, Miller and Bennett and five fellow fishermen were heading east to tend their “pound traps,” an ancient method of fishing in shallow water that uses staked enclosures to capture fish as they migrate along the shore. Miller and Bennett were likely to catch scup, bass, porgies, and other species.
If Governor Andrew Cuomo gets his way, though, they and other commercial fishermen on the South Fork may need to look for a new line of work. An avid promoter of renewable energy, Cuomo hopes to install some 2,400 megawatts of wind turbines off New York’s coast, covering several hundred square miles of ocean; a bunch of those turbines will go smack on top of some of the best fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard. One of the projects, led by a Manhattan-based firm, Deepwater Wind, could require plowing the bottom of Napeague Bay to make way for a high-voltage undersea cable connecting the proposed 90-megawatt South Fork wind project to the grid. The proposed 50-mile cable would come ashore near the Devon Yacht Club, a few miles west of the beach on which we were standing. “I have 11 traps, and all of them run parallel to where that cable is proposed to be run,” Miller says. “My grandfather had traps here,” he adds before shoving his skiff into the water. “I want no part of this at all.”
The mounting opposition to the development of offshore wind in Long Island’s waters is the latest example of the growing conflict between renewable-energy promoters and rural residents. Cuomo and climate-change activists love the idea of wind energy, but they’re not the ones having 500-, 600-, or even 700-foot-high wind turbines built in their neighborhoods or on top of their prime fishing spots. The backlash against Big Wind is evident in the numbers: since 2015, about 160 government entities, from Maine to California, have rejected or restricted wind projects. One recent example: on May 2, voters in three Michigan counties went to the polls to vote on wind-related ballot initiatives. Big Wind lost on every initiative.
Few states demonstrate the backlash better than New York. On May 10, the town of Clayton, in northern New York’s Jefferson County, passed an amendment to its zoning ordinance that bans all commercial wind projects. On Lake Ontario, a 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind, headed by Charlottesville, Virginia–based Apex Clean Energy, faces opposition from three counties—Erie, Niagara, and Orleans—as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset. An analysis of media stories shows that, over the past decade or so, about 40 New York communities have shot down or curbed wind projects.
Cuomo started pushing offshore wind because he and his political allies realized that building massive amounts of new wind capacity onshore isn’t going to happen. In January, the governor contended that offshore wind poses none of the aesthetic problems that have made land-based projects so difficult. “Not even Superman standing on Montauk Point could see these wind farms,” he said. Maybe not; and maybe wealthy beachfront homeowners won’t be able to see the proposed turbines, but lots of fishermen will. And that has them spoiling for a fight.
On May 6, at the Town Dock in Montauk, most of the fishing boats remained in their slips, due to high seas. The sentiment among the fishermen on the dock was identical to what I’d heard from Miller and Bennett. Bruce Beckwith, owner of the trawler Allison & Lisa, had just backed into his slip after catching several bushels of fish in the bay. He had been fishing with his son, P. J., and grandson, Alex. Beckwith traces his family’s roots in the region back more than 300 years. “I’m totally opposed” to the wind project, he said. “It’s going to be a hazard to navigation.” Standing near Beckwith was Ed Andresen, who also operates a trawler. When asked for his thoughts about offshore wind, he replied: “I can’t stand it. If you want wind energy, why would you put the turbines offshore?”
Montauk’s fishermen are far from alone in their worries. Renewable-energy mandates will require installing thousands of offshore turbines all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to the Carolinas. Last year, for instance, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed into law a provision that requires his state’s utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind by 2026. During a meeting at Inlet Seafood, a Montauk restaurant owned by six local fishermen, Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, told me that fishermen are facing “permanent denial” of their labor in the areas in and around the proposed projects. “We can’t go anywhere else,” she tells me. Asked about the politics of offshore wind, Paul Farnham, who owns the Montauk Fish Dock, which packs fish for shipment and sale (on consignment) to the New Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point in the Bronx, replies: “I’ll guarantee you, 90 percent or more of all these fishermen voted for Trump. It wasn’t because they liked him. It was because they wanted less regulation.”
America’s biggest environmental groups—including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—are lobbying for more offshore wind capacity. Last December, after America’s first offshore project—the Block Island facility located off Rhode Island’s coast—went online, Kit Kennedy of the NRDC enthused that Block Island was “only the beginning for this abundant energy resource!” Like many other renewable-energy cheerleaders, Kennedy talked about jobs, citing a Department of Energy report that claimed that “with the right policies in place, the offshore wind industry could support 160,000 jobs here in America.”
The South Fork fishermen are fighting to preserve their access to some of the most productive fisheries in the world. Some 99 percent of all the wild-caught seafood in New York comes from Long Island. About 40 percent of that catch is landed by commercial fishermen working out of Montauk. They catch about 12 million pounds of seafood every year—worth about $16 million at the dock. But the South Fork has become a magnet for the ultrarich. Vacant lots within a few blocks of the beach sell for $9 million. And these 1 percenters have brought their trendy green politics with them. The town of East Hampton, which includes the hamlet of Montauk, has set a goal of meeting all of its electricity needs with renewables by 2020. If that means placing lots of wind turbines offshore, so be it. And if those pickup-driving Bonackers, living in their tiny homes, have to leave town, that’s too bad, because, you know, climate change.
Montauk’s fishermen face a flotilla of deep-pocketed foes. Deepwater Wind is part of the D. E. Shaw Group, a Manhattan-based investment firm that manages about $40 billion. Like every other company in the wind business, Deepwater Wind is rushing to collect tax credits. Such credits are the ultimate prize in tax avoidance—far more valuable than a deduction from revenue or accelerated depreciation. As my accounting consultant (and brother) Wally Bryce, a CPA, reminds me: “You’d much rather get a tax credit because it applies dollar for dollar against what you owe the government.” Onshore wind firms can collect a production tax credit, which applies to the amount of energy (measured in watt-hours) that a given project generates. Offshore wind companies take advantage of a different part of the tax code: the investment tax credit, which is based on their project’s total cost—and is currently equal to 24 percent of that cost. If Deepwater Wind builds the South Fork project, it will collect some $170 million in tax credits.
Deepwater Wind and D. E. Shaw have close ties to the NRDC and to Cuomo. Max Stone, a managing director at D. E. Shaw, is a vice chair of NRDC’s board of trustees. Before Kit Kennedy joined NRDC, she worked for Cuomo as head of the state attorney general’s environmental protection bureau from 2007 to 2010. After joining NRDC, she wrote a blog post urging the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) to include a Deepwater Wind project on its “short list for a renewable energy contract.” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, worked at NRDC before working for Cuomo. David E. Shaw, founder of D. E. Shaw, “has contributed widely to Democratic political campaigns, including more than $38,000 to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaigns for state attorney general and governor,” Newsday’s Mark Harrington reported in 2014.
There’s more. Cuomo recently appointed John Rhodes to run the state Public Service Commission. Rhodes had been head of the Energy Research and Development Authority. Before that, Rhodes worked at—where else?—the NRDC.
The fishermen are also fighting Norwegian oil giant Statoil ASA. Last year, the state-controlled company (market capitalization: $58 billion) won an offshore wind lease with a record bid of $42.5 million. After winning the bid, Statoil suggested that the site could eventually accommodate about 1,000 megawatts of wind capacity. The lease was immediately lauded by the American Wind Energy Association, which said that the deal “increases the strong momentum” behind “ocean energy resource.”
While Big Wind’s myriad lobbyists exult over the Statoil deal, the new lease sits atop some of the best squid and scallop fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard, as Bonnie Brady’s husband, Dave Aripotch, captain of a 73-foot trawler, Caitlin and Mairead, showed me with a heat map. Aripotch has been pulling squid from this area for years. He says that if the wind project is built on the tract, he may not be able to fish there anymore.
In November, Brady’s Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, along with the Fisheries Survival Fund, the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, the town of Narragansett, Rhode Island, the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and several other groups of fishermen and fishmongers filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from auctioning the tract that Statoil won. The suit claimed that the project would bring “both great and actual harm” to the fisheries. The lease sale happened anyway. In February, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the fishermen’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking the final ratification of the lease. The lawsuit, however, was allowed to continue.
Expanding offshore wind to the 2.4 gigawatts that Cuomo has pledged will require covering about 300 square miles of offshore territory with turbines. And that’s only a small percentage of what could happen off U.S. coasts. Last year, the outgoing Obama administration published its National Offshore Wind Strategy, a document that claims that the U.S. can install 86 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2050. (The words “fishing” and “fishermen” don’t appear in the document.) It takes roughly 129 square miles for each gigawatt of wind-energy capacity; achieving the 86-gigawatt goal would require covering more than 11,000 square miles of offshore territory—nearly eight times the size of Long Island—with turbines.
Offshore wind energy has been hyped nearly as much as a Kardashian wedding. In 2011, then–interior secretary Ken Salazar spoke at an offshore wind energy conference in Baltimore. “From Texas to Oregon, to up and down the Atlantic Coast,” he observed, “there’s movement on offshore wind.” He went on to say that the Obama administration had set “an ambitious—but achievable—goal of deploying 10 gigawatts—that’s 10,000 megawatts—of offshore wind generating capacity by 2020.” We’re halfway through 2017, and the U.S. has just 30 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, so things aren’t proceeding as hoped.
The reality is that doing anything offshore is politically difficult and expensive. For proof, look at the case of Cape Wind, the 468-megawatt project that aimed to cover 24 square miles of Nantucket Sound with wind turbines. The backers of Cape Wind filed their first permit application in 2001. But the project ran into fierce opposition from landowners on Cape Cod, including, most prominently, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who didn’t want the turbines installed anywhere near his family’s Hyannisport haciendas. (Irony alert: Kennedy is a senior attorney at the NRDC, the very same group that is hyping offshore wind. Perhaps Superman would have been able to see Cape Wind from Hyannisport.) Despite getting environmental approvals from the federal government and the backing of many elected officials in Massachusetts, the project was finally halted for good in early 2016. Offshore wind projects in other countries have also been stymied. In 2015, for instance, the British government refused a permit for the 968-megawatt Navitus Bay offshore wind project, which was to be built in the English Channel, near the Isle of Wight. Among the stated reasons for rejecting the project, which would have utilized 650-foot-tall turbines, was its “seascape, landscape and visual impact.”
Cuomo has decided that New Yorkers should be using politically fashionable electricity instead of cheaper electricity generated from nuclear power and natural gas. Cuomo pushed for—and got—a deal that will prematurely close Westchester’s Indian Point nuclear plant. He has banned hydraulic fracturing in New York, and his administration refuses to issue permits to new natural-gas pipelines. By constricting the flow of natural gas, Cuomo appears to be hoping that renewables in general—and offshore wind in particular—will be the go-to option for the state’s utilities.
But a bit of math shows just how tough that will be. Deepwater Wind’s proposed South Fork wind project will produce about 370 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year. Compare that with Indian Point, which produces about 16,600 gigawatt-hours of energy per year. Thus, replacing a single nuclear plant with offshore wind energy will require building 45 offshore wind projects, all the size of the proposed South Fork project, which, if built, would be the nation’s largest. Add in the 29,000 gigawatt-hours that the New York Independent System Operator recently said will be needed to meet Cuomo’s goal of producing 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030, and the scale of the problem becomes even more obvious.
In addition to the political friction and scale problems, offshore wind energy is among the most costly ways of producing electricity. LIPA has agreed to pay Deepwater Wind about 22 cents per kilowatt-hour for the electricity produced from the South Fork project. But as Newsday’s Harrington pointed out in February, the average cost of natural-gas-fired electricity on Long Island is about 7.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. Thus, Cuomo is effectively preventing New Yorkers from using low-cost gas-fired electricity in favor of electricity from offshore that costs about three times as much.
That brings me back to Nat Miller. Just before launching his skiff into the water, Miller told me that he and his family are living in a 1,100-square-foot house and that, over the past five years, his electric bill had doubled. “We are the last of the middle class out here,” he said. “Now they want to cram a wind farm up our ass so Cuomo can look good when he runs for president.”
The push for expensive offshore wind energy, he predicts, will “bury the working class. People with money are going to feel good about themselves as they are wasting electricity. It’s such bullshit.”
Photo: Jim Bennett and Nat Miller (pictured at Lazy Point, Napeague Bay) are Bonackers, part of a group of families who were among eastern Long Island’s earliest settlers and have fished the waters for 14 generations. (COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR)
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