If New York doesn’t meet its renewable energy goals over the next few years, some billionaires might be to blame. A group of well-heeled Hamptons property owners filed a lawsuit this week seeking to block a key piece of infrastructure needed to construct a large wind farm off the coast of Long Island.
The Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott’s suit alleges that the town of East Hampton’s board rushed ahead with plans to install a cable along a small beach and town roads in the hamlet of Wainscott. The cable would connect the proposed South Fork Wind Farm owned by Danish company Ørsted to the grid. It’s one of five offshore wind projects New York is pursuing to help meet its target of 70% renewable energy in the next decade.
At first glance, the lawsuit reads like a normal grassroots manifesto against an evil corporation and greedy politicians. The group affirms its support for renewable energy, but cites concerns about beach erosion and the health impacts the project may have on residents. It alleges that the town was eager to get the $US29 ($38) million in payments from Ørsted, which group members have repeatedly referred to as “a hedge fund-created company,” and did not sufficiently consider alternate routes.
Digging into the group’s members and supporters, however, throws this vilification of profit into an ironic light. One of the group’s founders is Alex Edlich, a senior partner at consulting giant McKinsey, while billionaire Ronald Lauder, who donated $US1 ($1.3) million last fall to target Senate Democrats in New York, is also involved. Lauder’s family — of Estée Lauder money — moved a “centuries-old” log cabin from Virginia onto one of their properties in the Hamptons.
Signatories on some of the group’s petitions include Daniel Neidich, a former business partner of Trump treasury secretary and former hedge fund guy Steven Mnuchin; financial services giant Blackstone’s top lawyer John Finley (who was a major contributor to various GOP PACs last year); and Faith Popcorn, a well-known “futurist” who runs a predictive marketing firm (her current predictions include “25% of marriages will be between humans and bots” by 2025).
Most of these signers own at least one property in Wainscott, a hamlet where homes are just a smidge out of the price range of most Americans. To give you an idea of the property values, there’s a single-family home along the road where the cable would be installed currently listed for sale at $US49.5 ($65) million that comes with a pool, “expansive” gym with sauna and steam room, golf simulator, and whatever the hell a “Crestron controlled environment augmented by Lutron” is.
The group has spent more than $US300,000 ($394,800) to retain a public affairs firm in Manhattan to represent it, and, as Politico reported, spent more than $US28,000 ($36,848) on a “Truth About Ørsted” campaign on Facebook in 2019. “A multibillion-dollar corporation is set to make MILLIONS of dollars off of the South Fork wind farm project on the backs of hard-working New Yorkers like you,” the campaign’s website reads.
All this money is being spent for something that, in the grand scheme of infrastructure projects, seems pretty minimal. The contentious cable in question is “like an extension cord” running from the planned wind farm offshore, Willett Kempton, a professor of marine science and policy at the University of Delaware, said.
“It’s just a wire to connect the source of electricity, the offshore wind farm, to substations, where power goes,” Kempton added.
He said that the biggest environmental concerns with wind farm projects occur offshore, where turbine installation can have impacts on marine mammals and birds, and that onshore cable installation is akin to a routine construction project.
The lawsuit and petitions circulated by the group cite concerns over the health impacts of the cable and its installation, including “electromagnetic fields” and “violent energy releases in manholes.” But Kempton pointed out that the cable will likely be buried “at least 1.83 m underground’ and encased in a protective barrier.
“The idea that [electromagnetic fields] is some kind of risk…Frankly, it’s stupid,” he said. “If [electricity] wasn’t benign, you’d be dead from using your cell phone as much as you do.”
And honestly, that seems like a pretty weird thing for a group that includes a person who anticipates a quarter of us will be boning robots to worry about.
“For us, we can’t believe that they’re really upset over a cable,” Citizens Campaign for the Environment’s executive director Adrienne Esposito said. “Nobody who buys a house says, ‘excuse me, are there any cables in the road?’ Because the answer is always yes.”
Citizens Campaign for the Environment is one of several national and local conservation and environmental groups who have voiced support for the wind farm’s construction. Esposito said that she has been “dealing with” the Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott “for years” during the review process.
There’s a hell of a lot of wind off the U.S. coasts that we can — and definitely should — be using. U.S. The Department of Energy has estimated that the U.S. has up to 2,000 gigawatts of offshore wind potential, an enormous reserve that could help the country more easily transition to 100% renewable energy. Weirdly, there’s only one operating offshore wind farm in the U.S.–but states are teaming up with developers in hopes of creating green jobs and more renewable energy.
The South Fork Wind project “has had a rigorous public input review,” Esposito said. “[Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott] have made their presence known, as they should and as they have a right to, at every single [meeting]. They’ve had the same opportunities the rest of us have had. I think because they’re so wealthy, they get confused and think that they should have special conditions or something.”
In a press release sent to Gizmodo, Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott Chairwoman Gouri Edlich said the town “appeased the developer and put Wainscott at risk in the process.”
“We all support renewable energy, and we want to see that goal completed,” Edlich said. “But there are better ways to accomplish this important goal.”
Wealthy NIMBYs have played a role in killing clean energy projects around the country. Cape Wind, a project off Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, got delayed more than a decade and ultimately scrapped thanks to suits from wealthy residents with oceanfront properties (including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy). Solar projects in California’s deserts have faced serious opposition and roadblocks from residents wary of industrialisation. On the flip side, polluting fossil fuel infrastructure is often near low-income communities of colour, many of which lack the resources to fight back.
Lawsuits like this can “have a major impact” on the speed of wind projects getting installed, Kempton said. “It’s really frustrating to see people blocking solutions to climate change based on incorrect information that really has no factual basis,” he said.
Esposito said that attorneys in her coalition don’t believe the lawsuit will be a major roadblock to the South Fork Wind project. But, she said, “I never underestimate the power of billionaires.”
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