Already buffeted by competing political interests over a proposal to open a liquefied natural gas export terminal on the Chesapeake Bay, leading Maryland Democrats now find themselves divided over a plan to install at least 25 wind energy turbines in the bay.
At issue is the proposed Great Bay Wind project, which would put 25 wind turbines -- and perhaps, eventually, an additional 25 -- on farmland right by the Chesapeake, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The windmills would help the state achieve its mandate to use 20 percent renewable energy by 2022 -- and they would be a nice environmental credential for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is preparing to run for president in 2016. The project, which could open in late 2015 if all permits are finalized without delay, would provide an estimated 760 construction and permanent jobs in one of the most economically depressed parts of a relatively prosperous state.
But across the bay in southern Maryland, business, civic and political leaders are warning that the 600-foot-tall windmills will interfere with critical radar systems at Patuxent River Naval Air Station -- the economic driver for the entire region. They have rallied around a bill making its way through the state Legislature in Annapolis that would effectively delay state approval of the project for 15 months.
Ironically, legislators from the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland are traditionally allies in a Statehouse that is dominated by lawmakers from Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green, the project's Texas-based developer, said the delay would be fatal, given all the time and expense the company has put into developing infrastructure and obtaining permits. He called the bill "a smokescreen that would kill the project and our $4 million investment."
U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district includes the Patuxent River naval base, has been a leading proponent of the state legislation, working behind the scenes to round up votes by arguing that the windmills' impact on the economic fortunes of the naval base and neighboring communities may be dire.
"If customers find an alternative [military] installation to do their [radar] testing, they could go elsewhere, which could put many high-paying jobs and economic activity in our state at risk," he said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) issued a statement to The Baltimore Sun over the weekend saying she, too, favors delay -- a potential blow to wind power advocates given her popularity throughout the state.
Environmental groups and the O'Malley administration have opposed the measure to delay the wind project. A statement from 10 environmental and public health organizations called the legislation "heavy-handed."
"Not only will this bill's approach severely damage one of the state's largest, most mature wind projects currently in development, it will also send a strong signal to the wind industry that Maryland is not safe for investment," they wrote. "This bill will undercut development in one of the most viable wind energy regions in our state."
The legislation passed the state House earlier this month, 112-22 -- with the support of several reliable allies to environmental groups. It will be the topic of a hearing in the state Senate Finance Committee on April 1 -- six days before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year.
Cohen conceded that the turbines could interfere with the naval station's radar -- but said the company has signed an agreement with the Defense Department in which it has committed to shutting down the windmills whenever the Navy is conducting its radar testing.
"We addressed Navy and Pax River and DOD concerns," he said.
Mark Wright, a DOD spokesman, suggested in a statement provided to E&E Daily that the Pentagon is satisfied with Pioneer Green's "curtailment agreement," which, he said, meets requirements under federal law to provide for a "feasible and affordable mitigation measure."
Wright said that while DOD has not taken a position on the Maryland legislation, "it acknowledges that the State of Maryland may have its own legitimate concerns with the proposed Great Bay project and that Maryland should be given a reasonable amount of time to address those concerns."
Hoyer is unconvinced.
"Customers who utilize the Atlantic Test Range for classified testing have indicated that the proposed curtailment agreement is unacceptable," he said.
One of the chief Statehouse sponsors of the Maryland legislation, state Del. John Bohanan (D), insists there is no agreement between the Navy and Pioneer Green. He said in an interview that the legislation is necessary because the Navy is still waiting on a follow-up to a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on the wind project's impact on Patuxent River that is going to recommend mitigating measures.
Bohanan -- who works as an aide to Hoyer in addition to his legislative service -- compared the measure to the state's temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, putting the brakes on sources of energy "with unknown consequences."
"I understand the plight of the company," he said. "But what we as lawmakers need to look at is what's good for Maryland."
All politics is parochial
The debate over the fate of the windmills in the Chesapeake comes at the same time leading Maryland Democrats are wrestling over whether to support the proposed LNG export terminal at Cove Point in the bay, which is also in southern Maryland. Two pillars of the traditional Democratic political base are at odds: Environmentalists oppose the project, while many labor unions back it for the promised jobs (Greenwire, March 11). Hoyer is an unabashed supporter, while some of his congressional colleagues have taken a more nuanced view.
But even though members of Congress like Hoyer and Mikulski are trying to influence the vote in Annapolis, the fate of the wind turbine legislation rests with state lawmakers, who have their own parochial and institutional interests.
In Annapolis, it is widely assumed that Bohanan has been given deference on this issue in the House because he is popular with legislative leaders -- and because he is potentially vulnerable in his bid for re-election this year. Similarly, powerful state Senate President Mike Miller (D) and Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) both represent southern Maryland, increasing the chances that the bill to put the brakes on the windmills will get through the upper chamber.
On the other hand, the leading advocate of the wind turbine project in the state Senate, Sen. Jim Mathias (D), who represents parts of the Eastern Shore, is also considered vulnerable this year. He, too, is a member of the Finance Committee and is popular with his leaders -- and they won't want him to walk away from this fight empty-handed. The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md., reported last week that Miller and other state officials are trying to lure a Wal-Mart regional distribution center to the Eastern Shore, a potential consolation prize to Mathias and his constituents if the wind project is delayed or scuttled.
Although the Maryland Energy Administration has submitted testimony in opposition to the state legislation, O'Malley, who has compiled a fairly robust pro-environment record during his seven years as governor and headlined a national League of Conservation Voters fundraiser in New York last fall, has kept a low profile as the debate has ramped up and the bill has started moving through the Legislature. He has not said whether he will veto it if it comes to his desk.
"I can't imagine a scenario in which the governor would veto the legislation," Bohanan said.
But Cohen said he's hoping the governor considers the bigger picture.
"Clean energy is a huge cornerstone of the O'Malley administration and his economic development strategy," Cohen said.
Reporters Annie Snider and Daniel Bush contributed.