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Windbreaker: Senate blocks amendments to bill

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate gave preliminary approval on Thursday to legislation that would subsidize the development of energy-producing wind turbines at least 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City, moving the last of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s signature environmental initiatives to the brink of passage.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, and other supporters turned back six amendments to House Bill 226. Any successful change would force the legislation to return to the House of Delegates for another vote. Final approval in the Senate could come as early as Friday.

The bill is unlikely to be passed quietly, however. Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, said he wasn’t sure how many more amendments would be offered. He predicted that opponents would spend most of Friday talking about how “stupid” it would be to have Maryland ratepayers subsidize the development of a 200-megawatt offshore wind farm, rather than offer further amendments to the bill.

“This is the most expensive energy in the world,” Pipkin said. “In the world, and we’re creating a special carve-out.”

The administration-backed offshore wind energy legislation would force utility companies to buy electricity produced by the wind turbines and then pass that cost onto ratepayers. The developer of the project must submit plans that show the potential impact on ratepayers would be no more than 1.5 percent for businesses and no more than $1.50 per month for homes.

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard, said some businesses would be hit especially hard by the increase, forcing them to pass that cost along to consumers.

“We’re building this on the back of small business,” Kittleman said. “Everything they have, they have to pass on, because they don’t have those margins.”

Opponents frequently said it was unfair to ask Maryland residents to pay for the start of a new industry, especially when so many other, cheaper energy resources are available.

But Middleton, in the face of multiple amendments that would have essentially gutted the bill, told members that ratepayers were not subsidizing the development of the project itself; they were just paying for the energy produced by the offshore wind turbines.

“We’re paying nothing for the capital costs. … We’re not buying the project,” Middleton said. “We’re buying the power from it.”

None of the amendments proposed by the opposition were close to passage, including those that would have forced a cost-benefit analysis of energy resources, required developers to build substations that handle wind-produced electricity on Maryland soil and guaranteed ratepayers wouldn’t be charged for project cost overruns.

But the amendments’ failures didn’t stop lawmakers from offering one after another, until Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, abruptly halted debate. Afterward, Miller said it could take until Monday for the legislation to pass — but with 24 co-sponsors, passage is nearly a certainty.

“It’s one of the key environmental issues of our time,” Miller said. “We’ve got the ocean on our border, and we need to take advantage of it.”

The full Senate consideration was made possible when the Senate Finance Committee — a similar wind bill’s only obstacle during the 2012 General Assembly — voted 7-4 last week to move the bill to the floor. The committee, absent the six votes needed to force consideration by the Senate, did not act on similar versions of the legislation in 2011 or 2012.

Miller ensured the bill would escape the Finance Committee when in January he swapped one Prince George’s County Democrat for another, removing Sen. C. Anthony Muse from the panel and replacing him with Sen. Victor R. Ramirez.

Ramirez ended up being an insurance vote, as Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore, gave up her previous opposition after helping to negotiate a special $10 million fund to aid minority-owned businesses interested in participating in the offshore wind energy industry.