When his plan for clean energy ran smack into a rare habitat on a rocky Appalachian ridge, Annapolis businessman Wayne L. Rogers turned to people he knew could help: his contacts in the Maryland General Assembly.
State law and the environmental protections it afforded all but scuttled his proposal last year for 24 windmills atop Backbone Mountain at the state’s western edge. So Rogers waged a successful campaign to have the law changed – and environmental review gutted – for wind-energy projects such as his.
The case began three years ago when Rogers, a well-connected Maryland Democrat, applied to put up 26-story wind turbines on the state’s highest spot, in Garrett County, 1 1/2 miles from the West Virginia line. The wind farm, he said, could power 20,000 homes.
Wind farms are turning air into electricity across the country. But they’ve been a tough sell in Maryland, where the best gusts blow on a steep, craggy habitat for birds, bats and other wildlife, land well protected by state regulations.
In November, regulators granted Rogers a limited permit for fewer windmills, citing possible damage to the mountaintop habitat. That month, he joined the transition team of then-Gov.-elect Martin O’Malley (D), who tapped Rogers’s expertise as an energy adviser to power producers and governments. Among the policies advocated by the team that Rogers led: expanded wind power and less regulation.
As the General Assembly session got underway in January, Rogers, arguing that the law was too restrictive, turned to a powerful lobbyist and a top Democratic lawmaker in Annapolis. They helped win passage of a bill eliminating environmental review for wind farms no larger than 70 megawatts. Rogers’s proposal fit under the cap at 40 megawatts. He plans to reapply for a permit at the same spot.
“What they really did was an end run around the entire approval process,” said Bob DeGroot, an activist fighting wind projects in Western Maryland. “Because of the potential to kill millions of birds from global warming emissions, we’re going to kill millions of birds” with wind turbines.
Rogers defended the new law, approved overwhelmingly by the legislature and signed into law by O’Malley in April, as a reflection of the state’s emphasis on renewable energy. It brings Maryland’s policy more in line with those of neighboring states, he said.
“The entire industry looked at Maryland as a laggard,” Rogers said. “To get 90 percent of the legislature to agree on anything is way beyond politics.” Two wind farms have been approved in Maryland, but neither has been built. No others are in the pipeline.
Rogers’s business interests effectively decided the debate among environmentalists over what takes precedence: developing wind power or protecting nature.
Rogers is an international developer of hydroelectric power plants, including in China and Guatemala. He is also a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a prolific donor to a who’s who of Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and O’Malley. Rogers was finance chairman of Benjamin L. Cardin’s successful 2006 run for U.S. Senate in Maryland and Maryland chairman of Sen. John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He is also a major fundraiser for Clinton’s presidential bid.
To overcome the state’s regulatory hurdles, Rogers, 52, enlisted Gerard E. Evans, one of Annapolis’s top lobbyists. One of Evans’s closest allies in the Maryland State House is the powerful Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Evans began his career as an aide in Miller’s office, and Miller is godfather to Evans’s twin daughters.
Rogers and Miller share long ties through Democratic politics, and two of Rogers’s businesses contributed a combined $8,000 to Miller’s campaign committee in 2004, records show. In January, Miller submitted the wind energy bill that Rogers sought.
“What we heard was that wind power was taking a back seat to protecting bats, rats and owls,” Miller said.
When the Public Service Commission issued Rogers’s Synergics Wind Energy LLC its limited permit, it concluded that the project “would result in significant adverse impacts to threatened and endangered species,” citing concerns raised by the state Department of Natural Resources.
C. Ronald Franks, who was then the department secretary, said he advised the agency’s scientists to be judicious.
“I said I do not want them stopped for some minor, trivial situation,” Franks recalled. “But by the same token, I did not want to give them carte blanche to ruin an endangered habitat.”
A frustrated Rogers called opponents of the project “a small band of anti-wind extremists” at a meeting of wind developers, policy experts and state officials in December. He concluded that his wind farm would not be economically feasible with fewer than 19 turbines.
The governor’s 21-page transition report on Maryland’s energy future echoed those sentiments, lamenting that “not a single utility-scale wind power facility” has been completed in Maryland, “despite years of effort by a number of companies.”
Rogers testified in favor of the bill at a hearing, citing many of the policy goals listed in the transition report he helped develop.
The Department of Natural Resources, which had conducted the lengthy environmental review of the Synergics project and opposed the bill, did not provide testimony before the committee. When two of the agency’s top wildlife scientists showed up, they were told by DNR’s legislative staff member that they could not testify, according to several people who are familiar with the case and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political nature of the bill. The department’s name was crossed off the witness list of opponents, records show.
DNR spokeswoman Olivia Campbell referred questions to the governor’s office. Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said officials submitted written remarks on the bill that were sufficient.
Overall, he said, the governor has made it a priority to find alternatives to coal and nuclear energy. “There’s a balancing act that needs to be established between finding those sources of energy and preserving our environment,” he said.
The General Assembly approved the measure with little debate. One of the few lawmakers to vote against it was Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican whose district includes Backbone Mountain. Edwards said he supports wind power to help lessen the country’s reliance on imported oil. “But I didn’t like the way [the bill] came in,” he said, alluding to the political clout of Synergics in Annapolis.
With the new law, approval of Rogers’s full project appears virtually certain, Jim Boone, the commission’s staff counsel, said in an interview. “It seems pretty clear that the law provides an option for a streamlined approval for wind projects that was not available to the company before.”
Regulators still are required to consider a proposed wind farm’s safety and reliability. But they can no longer deny turbines on the grounds that they damage the environment. And opponents no longer can appeal the granting of a permit, as happened to Clipper Windpower Inc., whose project was tied up in court from 2003 until the challenge was rejected last month. The state has approved a third wind farm in Western Maryland that has not yet been built.
Rogers said the wind power law will benefit future developers and help “rein in an energy crisis” in Maryland. “Everyone benefited from the legislation,” he said.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.
By Lisa Rein
23 July 2007
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