Sometimes politics can play out like a chess match. That seems to be the case with the wind turbine debate most closely affecting Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
On May 16, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) vetoed the legislature’s overwhelming decision to delay, and essentially kill, plans for Texas-based Pioneer Green to build 24 windmills across the Chesapeake Bay. To many, that sounded like “checkmate.”
But on Monday, Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said, “It’s not over.”
The governor has been a major proponent for clean energy initiatives and is believed to be planning a bid for the presidency in 2016. Bohanan and the other legislators representing Southern Maryland are, essentially, guardians of Pax River, which has been in operation more than 70 years, employs more than 20,000 people directly, tens of thousands more indirectly and, according to the state economic development office, contributes about $7.5 billion annually to Maryland’s economy.
Those legislators and others in Southern Maryland fear that the wind turbines will interfere with radar testing at Pax River.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to arrange anything at this time,” Nina Smith, the governor’s press secretary, said Tuesday in response to requests to speak with the governor about his veto.
“We decline to comment,” she said.
O’Malley, in a letter to the speaker of the House, said, “I am committed to protecting Pax River because I know how critically important it is to Maryland.” But he said he vetoed the bill because measures already were in place to protect the Navy’s testing over the Chesapeake Bay, and because “the real threat to Pax River is not an array of wind turbines on the lower Eastern Shore, but rising sea levels caused by climate change.”
“That’s a bunch of hooey,” said Greg Gillingham, a longtime lead test engineer and the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance lead for studying encroachment issues that threaten Pax River. “They’ve got folks believing this stuff.”
St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said Tuesday that O’Malley is using an “excuse” that “climate and global warming is going to obviously sink Pax River. I think that is a very short-sighted view. The science he is following is one thing. The science of math and radar is another. The failure to allow that science to follow its logical conclusion is very disappointing.”
Pioneer Green could not be reached for comment by deadline Tuesday. But the company has said it could turn off the wind turbines when the Navy needed to conduct tests. Many of those tests are conducted to determine the stealth of certain aircraft, and the results of those tests could be affected by the wind turbines.
Gillingham wondered who would enforce a rule requiring a private civilian company to turn off the turbines during military testing. And he said, it could cause costly delays in major fighter jet programs.
“Let’s just suppose it causes Joint Strike Fighter to slip one day. To a program like that, it’s estimated to cost over $10 million.”
Bohanan said Monday that Pax River proponents are now seeking greater involvement from the Department of Defense, not just the Navy, on this issue.
And he said, “Ironically, it could be the state’s own process that dooms the [wind turbine] project.”
The Maryland Public Service Commission has to approve a defined process before Pioneer Green can begin the project. “That can take up to a year,” Bohanan said. “And there are no permits yet.” Maryland’s lawmakers would then have to approve the process submitted by the Public Service Commission.
“Just because one piece doesn’t work, doesn’t mean we’re not moving on to make sure the process works and to protect Pax River,” Bohanan said.
Some Pax River proponents, like Gillingham, say Pioneer Green knew the Navy wanted that air space and the ground beneath it off limits because engineers collecting measurements need a pristine environment to conduct tests that, in part, help determine the stealth of military aircraft.
Those proponents say the company was willing to take a chance and move forward. So the Navy’s proponents, mostly in the defense contracting industry, made a countermove, working behind the scenes to drum up support to protect their ability to test over the bay.
Environmentalists and even the state’s comptroller also entered the game, and upped the stakes, becoming proponents of the wind farm, echoing O’Malley’s long-term support of green energy initiatives.
Meanwhile, Bohanan and the Southern Maryland delegation pushed legislation to derail the project.
Adding a dose of adrenaline, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) got involved. And Hoyer brought some of the state’s, and the nation’s, power players with him, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who wrote letters of support.
“I think Congressman Hoyer personally called just about every senator himself,” said Bohanan, who also works as an adviser to Hoyer.
The legislation, Maryland House Bill 1168, passed overwhelmingly, 31-16 in the Senate and 112-22 in the House.
It seemed like the Maryland delegation was in control, and they were saying “check.”
Then everyone waited. And waited some more – perhaps waiting so long that it would be inconvenient, as well as costly, for the state’s lawmakers to call a special session and override any gubernatorial decision. O’Malley would have to either sign the bill into law, veto it, or make no decision, which also would allow the measure to become law.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed in the outcome,” said Gillingham, of the Navy Alliance. “I think it was shortsighted by the governor. He’s looking out for his political aspirations. He doesn’t care about the impacts that it’s going to have on Maryland.”
Morgan said there was “such a tremendous majority in the General Assembly on this bill, only to be slapped down by the governor on his own personal agenda.”
“I don’t look at it so much as a personal agenda,” Commission President Jack Russell (D) said, “I’m distressed too. I’m not happy in this. We get very little cooperation from the Navy on this type of thing.”
Now that the moratorium bill is vetoed, Morgan said, Department of Defense “leadership has to step up. We’re going through some political posturing. National defense is national defense.”
Allowing the wind turbines to go up across the bay “definitely has the potential to affect jobs in the future” at Pax River, he said. This will more than likely became a negative number against Pax,” he said, in future rounds of base realignment and closures.
O’Malley “still makes it seem like it’s a perceived issue,” Gillingham said. “Like it’s not anything significant.”
Staff writer Jason Babcock contributed to this report.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding