With only days remaining before a key vote in Maryland’s House of Delegates, intense lobbying efforts are underway on all sides of a plan by Gov. Martin O’Malley to build one of the nation’s first offshore wind farms – even as a powerful state senator raised the possibility this week of delaying action in his chamber until next year.
Arm in arm with O’Malley (D), environmentalists held their second rally of the week in the state capital Wednesday, seeking to demonstrate broad public support for a plan they stressed will create jobs, reduce pollution and potentially revolutionize the nation’s energy industry.
Meanwhile, inside the State House, lobbyists for energy companies, offshore wind developers and even companies connected to the U.S. Navy made rounds to key lawmakers to stress concerns in hopes of delaying or shrinking the scope of the governor’s proposal.
Members of the House subcommittee that regulates utilities, who are expected to cast a crucial first vote on the plan, said the cost to consumers and businesses of subsidizing offshore wind is shaping up to be the deciding factor in whether legislation moves forward.
“I want to know what the cost is, that would be a start,” said Del. Brian K. McHale (D-Baltimore), the subcommittee chairman. “The problem is, we really don’t know.”
In a nod to such concerns, O’Malley announced an amendment to the legislation Wednesday that he said would safeguard against an increase of more than $2 per month on residential electricity bills.
O’Malley’s administration estimates that his offshore wind proposal – a complex plan in which public utilities are required to purchase wind energy at a higher rate to ensure that developers can secure financing and turn a profit on the estimated $1.5 billion development – will result in a fee of about $1.44 a month on residential electricity bills beginning in 2016.
But a flurry of conflicting government studies has left lawmakers concerned that the price to consumers could turn out to be much higher. The state’s nonpartisan legislative analysts’ office pegged the monthly cost at $3.61 for residents. And the independent Public Service Commission initially suggested that the cost could approach $9 a month, before dialing that prediction back to near $3.
Sensing lawmakers’ hesitance to be viewed as raising electric rates while families are struggling to make ends meet, proponents of the governor’s bill have shifted tactics, distributing graphics and charts that show how volatile energy prices have been in the state over the past decade.
They have also seized on the unrest in Libya and elsewhere across the Mideast, casting wind’s stable, long-term expenditures as prudent, even if it will initially cost much more than energy from coal, natural gas and other traditional sources.
The environmentalists’ pitch doesn’t end there.
“The thing that I think is missing is a discussion about the long-term price: Is it worth it to protect the environment to require everybody to pay a small amount more in the short term?” said Environment Maryland Director Brad Heavner.
Trade unions, including steelworkers, have also mobilized to support the legislation, stressing federal assumptions that a development that size would produce 2,000 jobs for about five years while the wind farm is being built.
Environmentalists and trade unions rallied separately Monday, but O’Malley brought them together Wednesday.
In a late-hour public push for the legislation, O’Malley gathered with steelworkers and environmentalists – what he called the “blue and green coalition” behind the bill – on the Annapolis harbor dock.
“Pass the bill – sing it with me, people,” O’Malley said to the assembled supporters, who stood alongside wooden windmills used as props.
“If the other states make the choices in advance of ours, that’s where the jobs will go,” O’Malley said.
He drew attention to amendments his administration has proposed to require the costs to be in line with those seen in Massachusetts and Delaware, which have approved similar plans but have yet to begin construction. O’Malley said the new amendments would hopefully make “skittish” lawmakers more comfortable.
But Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chairman of the chamber’s Finance Committee, warned this week that several members of his panel think the bill should be studied – a common purgatory of a year or more in Annapolis.
“I think the bill has a lot of merit, but it’s getting late, and there are a lot of unanswered questions. At a minimum, it should get a study,” Middleton said.
Asked about Middleton’s talk of a study, O’Malley said he wants the bill passed this session.
“I’m hoping Senator Middleton will keep an open mind,” the governor said.
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said “it’s too early to tell” whether the votes will be there when his panel takes up the bill.
Davis said he has told the governor that he will “do what I can,” but also made it clear that he needs the administration’s help “answering questions in terms of cost and to reassure colleagues that this is proper public policy.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding