Gov. Martin J. O’Malley cited climate change as one of the reasons behind his veto of a bill that would impose a 13-month moratorium on electricity-generating windmills in an area around the U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
In a two-page letter, O’Malley also said allowing the bill to become law “will have the practical effect of derailing the Great Bay Wind project” proposed for Somerset County. The governor cited his commitment to increasing renewable energy in Maryland.
Supporters of the House Bill 1168, mostly Southern Maryland legislators, said the moratorium was needed in order to protect jobs at the naval air station, which uses a unique and classified radar system that would be affected by the turbines nearly 60 miles away.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary’s, said he, too, is committed to renewable energy but expressed disappointment in the veto, saying it “protects investors from an expiring federal tax credit over the job security concerns of Maryland families who work at Pax River Naval Air Station.”
“The Legislature took a decisive act with a strong vote in support of the men and women at Pax River who work so hard each and every day to protect our fellow Americans who proudly wear the uniform in defense of our Country,” Bohanan said in a statement. “This veto ignores the $2 million study currently underway to find a real solution to allow wind energy and sensitive radar systems to coexist. It also advances a State approval process without respecting the US Navy’s procedure to evaluate the actual impact this could have on the great work we do at Pax to ensure the safety and survivability of our military who are sent into harm’s way.”
O’Malley, in his letter, said he is committed to protecting jobs at the air station but said “meaningful safeguards are in place that render the bill unnecessary.”
“Ironically, the greater inconvenient truth threatening Pax River—and the billions of dollars of economic activity generated by that facility—is climate change,” O’Malley wrote. “To address that threat, we must encourage the development of clean, renewable energy. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by shifting to clean energy will not always be easy or convenient in the short run, and it will challenge all of us to find new ways to coexist, but it is critical to sustaining the economy and living environment in our state.”
“I remain committed to deploying alternative sources of energy in our state,” Bohanan said in his statement. “However, this bill was never about supporting or opposing alternative energy – its intent was to provide enough time to conclude a taxpayer-funded study into whether there is a way we can move forward with wind energy investment without adversely affecting operations at Pax River or having to interrupt or scale back the proposed wind project in Somerset County.”
The bill was the last of 811 sent to O’Malley that had not been signed or vetoed as of the last bill signing held May 15.
The bill, passed overwhelmingly in both the House of Delegates and Senate, prohibits a windmill of any size in a zone that stretches 24 miles east of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Beyond 24 miles, the windmill can be 100 feet tall, and the height limit gradually increases to 700 feet for locations 49 miles from the base.
The bill also prohibits the Maryland Public Service Commission from issuing permits before June 30, 2015, for the 25 windmills that are part of the Great Bay Wind Energy Center proposed for Somerset County until studies can be completed on the effects the windmills would have on specialized, classified radar equipment used across the Chesapeake Bay at the Patuxent base.
“We appreciate the Governor’s time and energy to fully understand the issue and applaud his decision to allow wind energy project investment to move forward on the Lower Eastern Shore,” Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green, said in a statement. “As we have said throughout the process, existing federal and state laws already contain extensive protections of the interests of PAX River, and we pledge that we will continue to work with the military to ensure our project and the base’s military testing will successfully co-exist. “
O’Malley found himself in difficult situation. He wanted to protect the base, which employs 22,000 military, civilian and contract employees and provides nearly $7.5 billion in economic impact to the state. But he also didn’t want to lose a $200 million investment by Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Energy in the Great Bay Wind Energy Center.
Additionally, there were political concerns as the governor sought to weigh his future political ambitions and support of renewable energy against potentially angering U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who backed the moratorium.
Hoyer, arguably the second most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives and a former president of the Maryland Senate, returned to Annapolis earlier this year to personally speak on behalf of the bill.
During that testimony, Hoyer said failure to pass the moratorium bill would allow the turbines to be built before the Navy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could complete a mitigation study. The result could be the loss of jobs at the base, Hoyer said, if there is a future military base consolidation.
But opponents of the moratorium said Pioneer Energy and the Navy had a draft agreement in which the energy company agreed to turn off the turbines when the radar was in use and that the Navy could delay the project on its own by not signing the agreement. Additionally, they cited their own experts who said the turbines would have no bearing on base consolidation.
“The developers of the Great Bay Wind project have engaged in years of painstaking negotiations, played by the rules, and invested millions of dollars in good faith reliance on the policies established by our federal and state legislative bodies,” O’Malley wrote. “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 at the eleventh hour.”
The veto met with support from environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which had opposed the bill.
It also met with praise from Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who last month sent a letter to O’Malley encouraging him to veto the bill in order to bring jobs to one of the more economically depressed areas of the state.
Franchot, in a post on Facebook, called the veto “a landmark day for the economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and for all of us who share a commitment to environmental sustainability and energy independence. Having called upon Governor Martin O’Malle yto veto this bill, I salute him for reviewing the facts and for having the courage to uphold the best interests of our entire state.”
The legislature can still veto the bill, but in an election year would most likely have to call a special session to do so. A three-fifths vote is needed in both the chambers to override. Both houses voted approved the original bill by margins exceeding what would be needed to override the governor’s veto.
“Based on the votes by which the bill passed, there would be the votes, but I will leave it to the Presiding Officers as to whether a Special Session is in order,” Bohanan said.