The state legislature, encouraged by Southern Maryland officials and advocates for Patuxent River Naval Air Station, emphatically passed a bill earlier this month to block, at least for the next 13 months, the construction of 25 wind turbines that are 600 feet tall in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore.
The concern is that the turbines could interfere with radar testing at Pax River.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has not said what he will do – sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), among others, is urging a veto.
Those calling for a veto say that the Navy has indicated it could ask that the wind turbines be turned off during radar testing, thus solving the problem.
But this is about more than windmills.
The Navy is not going to stand up and tell Maryland legislators not to permit the wind turbines. It rightly doesn’t want to be seen as interfering in civilian affairs.
And so it falls to Southern Maryland officials and other advocates to make the case for Pax River in the political arena. The real issue here is not whether it is technically feasible to shut down the turbines during radar testing. It is about whether this and other civilian activities will make the work at Pax River more difficult, which could lead to decisions down the road that could relocate activities to military facilities in other states that would love to have them.
Others may be tempted to see this as a case of Southern Maryland crying wolf: a prosperous community bullying its poorer cousin across the bay by comparing a theoretical threat to the 22,000 employees and $7.5 billion in economic activity associated with Pax River to the $200 million investment in a wind project in Somerset County, where the jobless rate is nearly double that of St. Mary’s.
But there are national implications to this debate. With pressure mounting for more military base closures and realignments as the Pentagon’s budget tightens, Maryland shouldn’t be sending a message that it is lukewarm about protecting all of the work at Pax River, one of the state’s biggest high-tech economic powerhouses, from civilian encroachment. To think that wouldn’t be exploited by other states and communities as they lobby for their own military facilities would be naive.
The state legislature has been quite clear that it understands these risks. The bill calls for a moratorium on these tall wind turbines until a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on whether they can coexist with the Navy’s radar testing. It passed the House of Delegates 122-12 and the Senate 31-16.
The governor may not want to sign this bill because he is laying the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign in 2016. If he is aiming to run in the Democratic primary on a progressive record, he will want to point to his record on expanding renewable energy in the state.
If O’Malley for his own reasons wants to let the bill become law without signing it, so be it. But he should not veto it.
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