Governor Mitt Romney, an opponent of the wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, would gain the authority to kill the controversial project under a tentative agreement reached yesterday in the US Senate.
After days of closed-door talks, members of Congress agreed on a measure that would grant the governor or his successor the right to block the wind farm proposed by Cape Wind Associates, Senate aides said. The break came yesterday when US Senator Gordon H. Smith, an Oregon Republican, switched sides and backed the measure giving the governor the authority to block the project, environmental advocates and Senate aides said.
The amendment is now expected to be attached to a broad Coast Guard authorization bill that would face floor votes in the House and the Senate, where its future remains unclear. Some expect the measure to generate a battle in the Senate, where Senator Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sharply criticized it this week as contradicting Congress's commitment to producing more renewable energy.
But environmental advocates agreed yesterday that the future looked bleak for Cape Wind.
''Cape Wind is suffering its nearest near-death experience, and it could go either way at this point," said Jaime Steve, legislative director of the American Wind Energy Association, one of a half-dozen advocates or aides who had learned of the majority of votes.
The narrowly written language applies only to wind energy facilities in Nantucket Sound and would allow the Coast Guard commandant to reject the plan if he deems it a hazard to navigation or if the governor opposes it for any reason.
If approved by Congress and signed by the president, the measure would almost certainly derail the Cape Wind project, which has united the governor, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly in opposition. Among the candidates to succeed Romney, only Democrat Deval L. Patrick firmly supports Cape Wind.
Romney has been a leading opponent of the wind farm, but has been limited in his ability to block it, since it would be located in federal waters, where the state lacks jurisdiction. His communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, said yesterday that the governor was not involved in the discussions of the amendment.
Jim Gordon, chief executive and president of Cape Wind, issued a statement confirming and denouncing the agreement. He pointed out that his project has been undergoing a five-year environmental review involving 17 state and federal agencies and said the effort by a handful of members of Congress ''is unjust."
Cape Wind aims to build 130 wind turbines on a 24-square-mile area of Nantucket Sound. During average winds, Gordon says, the project could provide three-quarters of the electricity needs of the Cape and Islands, without generating pollution.
But some residents of the Cape and islands have balked at the idea of wind turbines towering as tall as the Statue of Liberty on the horizon and argue that the project would convert a pristine setting into an industrial development. The opponents formed a well-financed group that argues that the government should not surrender the sound to a private developer. That group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, withheld comment on yesterday's congressional maneuvers, saying it would await the final outcome.
The group had been pushing for a more expansive amendment, proposed by Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, that would have restricted all offshore wind turbines within 1 1/2 miles of navigation or shipping lanes. Hy-Line Cruises and The Steamship Authority, which together transport more than 3 million passengers a year, joined the three regional airports in calling for such restrictions.
But environmental advocates fought that measure, saying it would not only kill Cape Wind but threaten the future of wind energy development nationwide. Senator Ted Stevens, another Alaska Republican, introduced the compromise language that focused only on the Nantucket Sound project and gave the governor veto power.
Members of a conference committee were deliberating this week over whether to sign off on that language. Until yesterday, advocates had focused on Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, believing she was the pivotal fourth vote needed to win a majority of Senate conferees. Senator John F. Kerry weighed in, urging Cantwell not to back the amendment that would threaten the wind farm, his spokeswoman said.
But yesterday, a member of Cantwell's staff said she did not back the amendment and that four other senators did: Smith, Stevens, Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
''It had four signatures today," said Charla Neuman, a spokeswoman for Cantwell.
Environmental advocates said Smith had opposed the provision; one advocate provided the Globe with an e-mail from a Smith staff member expressing his opposition.
Smith's press secretary, R.C. Hammond, said he had objected to the provision because he believed the issue was already addressed in last year's energy bill, and he wanted to end the impasse over the Coast Guard bill.
''The senator wanted to see the bill moved forward and didn't want to scuttle a bill that had benefits for Oregon," Hammond said.
Smith's change confused environmental advocates who consider him a friend to their issues and who cited the potential for wind power in his own state.
''He's very moderate and very supportive of wind," said Steve of the American Wind Energy Association. ''He's got a large amount of wind development in the state. He's been incredibly supportive of the wind energy production tax credit, which is vital to the industry. He's a longtime friend and supporter."