Two Republican lawmakers are probing whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) disregarded safety concerns and approved the Cape Wind project—the nation’s first offshore wind project—for political reasons.

The FAA issued its third No Hazard Determination in 2010, shortly after the Department of Interior issued its approval for Cape Wind, a 130-turbine wind farm proposed offshore Nantucket Sound, Mass. But a federal appeals court last October remanded the decision to the FAA, finding that the federal agency erroneously focused just on whether the turbines met the technical definition of obstruction (whether they exceeded 500 feet) without considering separately whether they would interfere with air navigation. The decision handed a legal victory to opposition groups.

The Congressional investigation was launched last week, a month after the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group opposed to the project, unearthed via Freedom of Information Act requests documents that reportedly “show that FAA officials were keenly aware of the political implications of the Cape Wind decision." The project’s "political sensitivity" is reportedly documented in several e-mails, action items, and other materials.

A May 2010 PowerPoint slide titled "Political Implications" presented to Eastern Service Area Directors, for example, reportedly states “The Secretary of the Interior has approved the project. The Administration is under great pressure to promote green energy production. It would be very difficult politically to refuse approval of this project." An e-mail response sent that same month reportedly says: "Who is willing to go tell the White House that we are halting wind development because there might be wake turbulence or microclimate effects?"

"It would be most troubling if FAA officials felt political pressure to approve the Cape Wind project despite both internal and external concerns over its safety,” Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a letter to the FAA last week.

Darrell, who is the chair of the House’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Mica, the chair of Transportation and Infrastructure, demanded the FAA provide all communication about Cape Wind over the last three and a half years between the agency and Cape Wind, federal officials, and the White House.

In a statement this week, the FAA said it "makes obstruction evaluations based on safety considerations and the available solutions to mitigate potential risks."

"On air navigation safety, the FAA has been carefully reviewing Cape Wind for 10 years and has approved it three times, twice during the Bush administration and once under the current administration, despite pressure from the a well funded opposition group," said Cape Wind spokesperson Mark Rodgers in a statement on Wednesday.

"We are hopeful that the extensive, ongoing FAA review will reach the same conclusion: Cape Wind will not be hazardous to air navigation – just as Europe’s forty offshore wind farms built over the past twenty years have not posed any problems for safe air navigation there."

The Cape Wind project, proposed in 2001, has run into various legal setbacks and suffered several delays. Developers now say they hope to begin construction on the 440-feet-high turbines in 2013 and begin generating power in 2015.

Though it is rated at 468 MW, its average anticipated output is 182 MW. The project includes a 66.5-mile buried submarine transmission cable system, an electric service platform, and two 115-kV lines connecting to the mainland power grid.

Sources: POWERnews, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee,  Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, Cape Wind, FAA
—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)