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Bill to block wind turbines called unnecessary now

St. Mary’s County lawmakers were taken aback Friday during the Southern Maryland delegation’s weekly meeting in Annapolis when Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton expressed reservations with resubmitting a bill that would put off construction of wind turbines on the Eastern Shore until completion of a study on their impact to radar systems at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Middleton (D-Charles) raised his concerns one week after he joined the rest of the delegation in voting to move forward with the legislation, which last year passed the Maryland General Assembly with overwhelming majorities in both chambers but died with a veto from the former governor, Martin O’Malley (D).

In addition, Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles), chair of the Southern Maryland delegation, said she had received a call from a St. Mary’s County commissioner, whom she later identified as Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), expressing his own reservations with the bill.

The St. Mary’s delegation made the legislation a priority entering the 2015 session, and the bill seemed to once again have the region’s full support.

But Middleton questioned the necessity of the bill following steps taken last year by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who put language into the federal defense spending bill preventing the Navy from entering into an agreement with the wind project’s developer, Pioneer Green, which has offered to turn off the turbines when Pax River is conducting radar tests.

“That alone stops anything from going through, so my question is what is the need for the legislation, and what is the potential unintended consequences of it?” Middleton asked.

In addition to Mikulski’s actions, the Department of Defense in October filed a formal objection to the wind project, citing national security concerns.

Del. Tony O’Donnell (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) said the legislation must be introduced again due to a prohibition on a newly elected legislature from overriding an outgoing governor’s veto.

“Therefore we are reduced to reasserting the state of Maryland’s policy statement on this issue, just like we did last year,” he said. “We shouldn’t rely on the federal government sticking some uncodified language in a bill somewhere that can be overturned, to be quite honest, by a phone call made from the president. We don’t control that, but Maryland can control its interests by passing this bill.”

Should Pax River end up on the short list of bases under consideration by a future base realignment and closure commission, “the state of Maryland should be on record of supporting Pax River to the extent that we stopped an important initiative to protect the interests of the testing at Pax River,” O’Donnell said. “That’s why it’s important.”

In a phone interview, Morgan expressed concerns echoing Middleton’s. He said the safeguards put in place by Mikulski and DoD’s objection have rendered the state legislation unnecessary.

“None of this stuff was in place last year,” Morgan said, noting the objection was the first filed in opposition to a wind energy project in DoD’s history. “This is not some whimsical thing. This is the Defense Department getting on board with this.

“I don’t see the point of the bill. From my point of view, I don’t see what the bill is going to do with all the other limitations in place,” he said.

O’Donnell (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) called it “offensive to have one commissioner reach in here and think he has the authority to override a formal action of this delegation, and we shouldn’t stand for it for a second.”

Despite his concerns, Morgan said “the decision is obviously going to be the legislature’s.”

Jameson warned that the bill could have a tougher time passing the legislature this session, should environmental groups searching for a core issue decide to focus on defending the wind project.

Were the legislation to fail this year, it might “provide energy to a state like California to come and say, ‘Maryland really doesn’t want this.’”

Despite Middleton’s concerns, O’Donnell and the remainder of the St. Mary’s delegation remained steadfastly in support of the legislation. Sen. Steve Waugh (R-St. Mary’s) called the project “an existential threat” and a “vampire that needs a wooden stake all the way through the chest.”

The bill would provide the base another layer of protection should federal policy toward the project change, Waugh said. “It may be a low probability at this point, but the consequences would be catastrophic,” he added.