Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

A strange wind

The saga of the Somerset County wind project

  • May 22, 2014
wind turbines on Wolfe Island, Ontario (Rona Kobell)

Editor's note: Rona Kobell will be discussing this topic on WYPR's news review Friday, May 23 at 1 p.m. Tune in, or listen online.

It was a true Annapolis mystery.

A much-admired Democrat, who has risen to high places in Congress, returned to his State House stomping grounds to testify - for the first time in two decades - against a bill that was close to his heart. A bill that could have huge implications in his district. A bill…against a wind farm dozens of miles away?

The story of why Steny Hoyer, the House Minority Whip in Congress, opposed the Great Bay Wind Project, which will sit across the Chesapeake Bay from his Southern Maryland district, is simply baffling.

Hoyer has a strong record of supporting clean energy, and he knows that Gov. Martin O’Malley does as well. But Hoyer persuaded Southern Maryland legislators to put in a bill delaying the planned Somerset County wind project anyway, saying he feared it could interfere with sensitive radar being used at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, one of the nation's premier test flight centers.

The Navy, though, had said it was fine with the wind farm; it had gotten access to turn off the turbines when it needed to test its radar. The Navy, also, has been fairly astute regarding climate change and is seeking to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels; with a huge presence in vulnerable Norfolk, it’s learned the hard way about adaptation.

Nevertheless, Hoyer worried the wind farm near Princess Anne, in Somerset County, could jeopardize thousands of jobs connected to the naval air station, . He wanted his friends in Annapolis to make sure that didn’t happen - even though the wind farm has been in the works for four years and no one had raised red flags.

The bill to delay the wind farm passed. Last week, O’Malley vetoed it.

“The real threat to Pax River (as the naval air station is called) is not an array of wind turbines on the lower Eastern Shore, but rising sea levels caused by climate change,” O’Malley wrote in his veto letter. “If this moratorium were to take effect, it would send a chilling message to clean energy investors, developers, manufacturers, construction firms, engineers and sustainable businesses that the state can change the rules in the eleventh hour.”

It seemed an obvious choice for O’Malley ,who is mulling a presidential run. The wind project will generate 529 jobs in Somerset County, one of Maryland’s poorest. According to a report from the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, it will contribute more than $2.9 million to the County’s tax revenues and $3.3 million in combined local and State taxes during its initial year of operation. The estimated installed cost of the project will be $273.6 million.

Then there are all the ancillary jobs connected with the operation: turbine manufacturers that will relocate here, more businesses for the port of Baltimore in shipping components, and more people coming into the towns to patronize local restaurants and hotels. And this in a county where the best jobs around are working at a prison.

Beyond the economic benefits, there is the whole matter of climate change. Recent reports by the International Panel on Climate Change and the University of Maryland report that, basically, it’s worse than we feared. Sea-level is rising at an alarming rate. Not far from Great Wind’s base, we’re losing key wetlands, forests and other valuable ecological resources due to inundation. In the nearby Bay, Holland Island is gone and Smith Island, just across Tangier Sound, must contend with severe storms and flooding; Crisfield, also near the wind farm, suffered greatly in Tropical Storm Sandy.

O’Malley has supported efforts to increase Maryland’s renewable portfolio standard. Under his leadership, the Maryland Energy Administration has been active in recruiting more alternative-energy projects; it worked hard to pass an off-shore wind bill two years ago. Indeed, O’Malley’s MEA worked with Pioneer Green, the developers behind Great Wind, for four years. If he did not veto the bill, what kind of message would that send to other wind businesses? Not an encouraging one; especially not when Virginia’s motto is “Open for Business” and Pennsylvania has been welcoming wind projects for a decade.

“If the legislation had passed, and the governor had signed it, a lot of wind development would have gone next door,” said Paul Harris, the development manager for Pioneer Green, the company developing Great Bay Wind. “We’ve been playing by the rules, working very closely with the MEA - if the rules had changed, it would have sent a chilling message to the business community.”

And then there was the local love for the project. Farmers demonstrated in Annapolis with turbines affixed to their tractors. Pioneer Green, which had already spent $4 million on development, set up an office in Princess Anne; Harris became an officer in the Chamber of Commerce. The superintendent of schools, the county executive, the local farm bureau - all supported this project. And the environmental community was enthusiastically on board as well.

Could the governor really tell them their opinions didn’t matter?

And yet, the veto was not a sure thing. O’Malley has used the veto sparingly since taking office, and it’s not a great idea to alienate a powerhouse like Hoyer when contemplating a national political run. The governor did not share his plans. For five months leading up to the veto, Harris admits, he was not sleeping well.

O’Malley had many reasons to veto what Harris called “a pretty terrible piece of legislation.” But he had one crucial reason to uphold it: Hoyer and the Southern Maryland delegation. That he chose to veto the bill anyway in the face of Hoyer’s rebuke shows that sometimes policy trumps politics. O’Malley doesn’t support wind just because he thinks it can help him get elected in Iowa; he supports it because he sees a low-carbon, renewable fuel that brings with it jobs and energy independence.

We may never figure out why Hoyer opposes Great Wind, but we can see why O’Malley supports it. Politicians don’t always try to figure out which way the wind is blowing and get in front of it. Sometimes, it’s their convictions that point them in the right direction.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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