Storm over Cape Cod

Famous names fight wind farm plan in millionaires' playground

As she put the finishing touch to a watercolour outside the gated community of Oyster Harbours, Nancy Walton wrinkled her nose at the thought of America's first offshore wind farm popping up on the horizon of Nantucket Sound. "I believe in wind power," she said, "but these will be higher than the Statue of Liberty. There are so precious few places on earth as unspoilt as this. Why can't they just put them somewhere else?"

Oyster Harbours is ground zero in a very uncivil war in which some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the country have joined forces with one of America's dirtiest businesses – the coal industry – to block an ambitious clean-energy project.

As Hyannis filled up with traffic ahead of the Independence Day holiday today, there was a whiff of cordite rather than fireworks in the air as both sides blasted away at each other.

So far, the opponents have spent more than $20m trying to kill off the project, which is known as Cape Wind and is planned for a location widely deemed ideal for offshore wind turbines.

During the summer, 130 slowly spinning windmills located five miles offshore should be invisible to the naked eye because of haze. On winter days, when the "snowbirds" (as the locals call summer visitors) have departed for Florida, the windmills will look like rotating matchsticks out on the horizon.

But a problem arises because the wind farm will at times be visible from some of the most expensive summer homes and private beaches in the US, most notably the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport. And whether Obama Democrats or McCain Republicans, vulgar billionaires or old New England money, opponents of the project decided long ago to throw in their lot in with Big Coal to try and kill off Cape Wind. "This is like trying to put a wind farm in Yellowstone National Park as far as we're concerned," said former coal executive Glenn Wattley, who runs the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

Most prominent among the opponents is Edward Kennedy, patriarch of the famous political clan and now ill with brain cancer. Kennedy opposition to the wind farm may be understandable, given that the stretch of water from Cape Cod to the summer playgrounds of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard is hallowed ground where Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy grew up sailing dinghies and chasing girls. Other opponents include the heiress Bunny Mellon and Bill Koch, a billionaire oil and coal industrialist who is the main financial force behind the opposition.

A number of those now advising John McCain in his run for the presidency have also lobbied against the wind farm. The firm owned until a few months ago by Charlie Black, Mr McCain's chief strategist, is busy pulling the levers of power from Boston to Washington DC in his efforts to to derail the project, although Mr McCain himself is an enthusiastic Cape Wind supporter.

So upset was the author Wendy Williams by the distortions of the anti-wind farm lobby and the squandering of public money on countless hearings and lawsuits in the past seven years, that she wrote a book about the battle called Cape Wind. "The global elite are simply out of control," she said. "Environmentalism is fashionable among this crowd, but they still drive SUVs to Save-the-Whale rallies."

Jim Gordon, the man behind Cape Wind, is not a member of the Cape Cod set. He has spent more than $30m in the past seven years trying to get the project off the ground. He finds himself branded as a rapacious outsider who wants to pocket extraordinary profits and spoil the famous view. However, for all the well-funded opposition, Cape Wind has plenty of local and national support. Leading environmental organisations including Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Sierra Club want it to go ahead. Locals hope the project will reduce rising electricity bills and help clean up the air they breathe.

Cape Cod has some of the worst air quality in Massachusetts. The fumes from oil and coal-fired electricity generating plants are trapped by the sea breezes and hover over the cape for days on end.

Barbara Hill runs a grassroots environmental organisation known as Clean Power Now and often finds herself at the wrong end of a disinformation campaign being run by the anti-wind power lobby.

"All the money being splashed around to kill off the wind farm is a scandal," Ms Hill said. "The turbines are a perfect marriage between nature and technology and we have had working windmills throughout our heritage in New England.

"We want people to sit on the beach, see the windmills and make the connection between the energy they consume and its production. For too long people have ignored the pollution caused by oil and coal."

On the beach with Jack, Ted, Bill and Gordon

Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket have been attracting visitors since the time of the Pilgrims. When President Kennedy was alive, war cabinet meetings were held at the Kennedy family home in Hyannisport (where he and his brothers, Ted and Bobby, grew up), with JFK wrapping up the meetings early so he could take his visitors out on Nantucket Sound in the family yacht, Honey Fitz. "I always come back to the Cape and walk on the beach when I have a tough decision to make," he once said. Bill Clinton holidayed on Martha's Vineyard along with Hillary and Chelsea and found it was one of the few places that he could go in America without running into protesters. The Vineyard is also a favourite of Gordon Brown. He honeymooned at the Wequassett Inn in Chatham in 2000 and has been a frequent visitor to Cape Cod.

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