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Committee buries wind siting bill, guv’s bottle bill dealt blow

Less than two years after it won overwhelming passage in the House and Senate, a bill intended to streamline the permitting process for land-based wind turbines was buried in study Tuesday by a legislative committee, likely denying the Patrick administration a long-held priority in its effort to increase renewable energy production.

Rep. John Keenan, co-chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, also put the brakes on a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to add a 5-cent deposit to the cost of water, juice and sports drink bottles, a plan the governor intends to include in his budget proposal, slated for a Wednesday release. Although Keenan said the bottle recycling proposal could reemerge later in the session as a standalone bill, he said the plan would not be included as part of the Legislature’s annual budget process.

“The speaker made that pretty clear last year. It will not be part of the budget deliberative process this year,” Keenan said. “We continue to look at various options we can do with that, but it absolutely will not be part of the budget debate.”

Although residents may redeem their 5-cent deposit by recycling carbonated beverages at a local redemption center, Patrick is counting on the so-called bottle bill expansion to generate $22 million to support his budget proposal.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” said Richard Sullivan, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in a phone interview. “It’s time to move forward on that … If it’s going to move as a standalone, we remain committed to do that. The governor has said he will sign it if it gets to his desk.”

While critics of expansion call it a tax, backers reject that label and argue that the plan is long overdue and would sharply increase recycling rates, relieve stress on municipal trash collection budgets, and reduce litter.

“Our coalition has its sights set on the [telecom] committee to move this bill forward with a positive report, reflecting the tremendous public support for the legislation,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, a consumer advocacy organization. “The support in the public is overwhelming. I think if it came up on the floor of the Legislature, that support would be recognized in the vote.”

The committee’s one-two punch, on the eve of the governor’s budget proposal, comes a day after Patrick stood before the Legislature and suggested they continue to take “politically tough” votes in support of his agenda, although the governor has been largely silent on the wind bill since it got hung up one Senate vote shy of his desk in the summer of 2010.

Wind bill supporters say it would speed up and streamline the process for land-based wind turbines while respecting the wishes of local residents. Opponents argue local control is stronger under current laws.

Keenan (D-Salem) and his co-chair, Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), said their decision to relegate the wind siting bill to a study – a move that nearly always spells defeat for bills – was intended to give the committee more time to advance narrower legislation focused on the siting standards used for land-based wind projects.

“We remain committed to developing siting standard legislation, which is part of the bills that are before us right now. It is my commitment … that we move forward with that legislation out of this committee this session,” Downing said.

The bill was sent to study without objection from any of the 10 members on hand.

Sullivan, the Patrick administration energy and environmental affairs chief, said he had accepted that the wind bill “is not going to pass in this session” and he intends to work with the committee to develop siting standards that could be included in a comprehensive siting reform next year.

“Clearly, we’re disappointed that it’s not going to pass in this session,” he said. “I will work, the administration will work closely with the chairmen as we look to define the parameters in terms of the standards for siting.”

Keenan noted that the committee had spent 16 hours gathering testimony from residents on Cape Cod and in the Berkshires – the regions with the greatest wind energy potential in Massachusetts – before coming to their decision.

“One of the things we heard about was the issue of standards. We need further study and further review to actually address some of the issues,” he said.

After the executive session, both chairmen referenced a recent Department of Environmental Protection/Department of Public Health report that concluded that land-based wind turbines, sited appropriately, present no ill health effects for local residents, despite protestation by groups of residents from Falmouth who say their quality of life has suffered.

“Neither of us are against renewable energy. We’re just trying to do it right and respect the communities where these projects are being built,” Keenan said.

“We take it seriously as our responsibility to determine what’s the best decision when it comes to, in this case, siting policy,” Downing added. “The broad consensus at this point is that the best step when it comes to siting policy is to develop the standards, to get the standards right so that you have projects that can have broad support.”

During its executive session, the committee also gave favorable approval to a bill to set standards for communities to establish municipal lighting plants, a proposal that supporters say would provide competition with private utilities and improve customer service.