OCEAN CITY – One of the first significant contracts awarded in the proposed offshore wind energy project off the coast of Ocean City went to a fabrication firm in Louisiana, leading local officials to question whether a promise to create jobs and spur economic development in Maryland has been broken early in the process.
Last spring, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approved US Wind’s project of 32 wind turbines off the resort coast at a distance of 17 miles, or the farthest east area of its federally-designated Wind Energy Area (WEA).
Throughout the process, the Town of Ocean City has supported the US Wind project in general, but has strongly opposed the placement of any turbines within 26 miles of the resort coast, or the distance from which town officials believe the massive turbines would not be visible from the Ocean City shoreline. The town’s opposition regarding the distance from the coast has largely been based on the premise visible turbines would have a detrimental impact on the views from Ocean City shore, tourism and property values.
The battle over the distance of the turbines has been waged through an aggressive letter-writing campaign carried out by both sides and culminated this month with strong testimony from both sides during Maryland Senate committee hearings on a bill that would require the turbines to be sited at least 26 miles off the coast. That legislation ultimately failed when it did not make it out of committee.
Throughout the process, US Wind has said repeatedly the potential impact of the turbines on the views from the Ocean City shoreline would be negligible compared to the estimated hundreds of jobs created by the project for Marylanders and the significant economic development gains from the project on the Eastern Shore and other parts of the state.
However, just weeks after the contentious debate in the Maryland Senate committee hearings, US Wind last week announced it has entered into a contract with a Louisiana firm for one of the first significant facets of the long-term offshore wind project.
US Wind has entered a contract with Gulf Island Fabrication LLC, a Louisiana-based company with a long history of producing components of offshore wind energy and offshore drilling and exploration projects. In fact, Gulf Island Fabrication produced some of the components in the offshore wind energy project off the coast of Rhode Island.
The meteorological tower will be constructed as an intricate steel lattice tower roughly 330 feet in height. It will be delivered from the Gulf area to Ocean City in July and will likely be installed at its future home off the coast of Ocean City in the designated WEA in August.
“This contract with Gulf Island Fabrication marks a significant milestone in US Wind’s aim to deliver the intended sustainable wind energy and job and economic benefits to the Maryland economy,” said US Wind President & CEO Riccardo Toto. “We are delighted to partner with highly-regarded Gulf Island Fabrication as we move further toward realizing this important project that will set a new standard in the United States for offshore wind energy generation.”
However, the fact one of the early significant contracts for the project is going to a Louisiana firm certainly rankled some local officials this week.
“The meteorological tower is manufactured in Louisiana and installed by crews from Houston,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “[US Wind Project Manager] Paul Rich just cancelled his membership with the O.C. Chamber. Weren’t the 900 members of the chamber supposed to benefit from his project?”
Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out the irony of US Wind’s press release announcing the contract with Gulf Island Fabrication appearing to fly in the face of the promise to invest in Maryland and create jobs in the state.
“Their press release contradicts itself with them saying the first step is to create jobs for Maryland and one of the first things they do is hire a company from out-of-state,” he said.
However, Rich defended the contract to Louisiana-based Gulf Island Fabrication this week, pointing out US Wind’s recent history with the company and the need for expediency for this phase of the overall project.
“It’s certainly not our preference to use out-of-state firms for any of these facets of the project,” he said. “Because this part of the project is so near-term, we needed somebody to be able to do this quickly and efficiently.”
Rich said US Wind did its due diligence on the meteorological tower contract and sought Maryland companies, but Gulf Island Fabrication best met the company’s needs for this facet of the overall project. He said US Wind could and would seek local contractors for any all phases going forward.
“We did a request for proposal (RFP) process for this part of the project including some Maryland companies,” he said. “We’re still going to pursue other fabricators going forward and where we can use Maryland companies, we will. We are trying our best to use Maryland companies whenever possible.”
In terms of ending US Wind’s relationship with the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, Rich said the company didn’t cancel its membership but rather simply chose not to renew it. It’s no secret the Ocean City Chamber has been opposed to the siting of any wind turbines less than 26 miles from the resort coast and chamber officials testified in opposition during the various committee hearings on legislation this month.
“We got the renewal notice and after some discussion decided not to renew it,” he said. “It’s an organization for small business and that’s what we’re trying to do here. However, based on the chamber’s opposition and its attempts to thwart this project, we thought it best not to renew at this time.”
Rich was frank in his assessment of the chamber’s voiced opposition to the US Wind project, at least inside 26 miles, but left the door open for a renewed relationship in the future.
“It’s not like we took our ball and went home. We just didn’t renew our membership,” he said. “If sentiments change, I can envision us renewing with the chamber, but as it stands, the chamber is in opposition to our project.”
Harris Offshore Wind Amendment Denied
Almost lost in the hustle and bustle of the legislation in the Maryland General Assembly regarding the siting of the wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City was an amendment attached to a federal appropriations bill by U.S. Congressman Andy Harris (R-1-Md.) that could have effectively derailed the US Wind project.
Last summer, Harris was successful in attaching an amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill that would have prohibited the use of federal dollars to conduct reviews of site assessments or construction and operation plans for wind turbines less than 24 miles off the Maryland coast. However, when Congress approved the Department of Interior appropriations bill last week, the Harris amendment was removed. US Wind officials were declaring victory this week over its removal from the federal spending plan.
“The Harris amendment was pulled from the federal appropriations bill by a Republican-controlled Congress,” said Rich. “If successful, it would have moved the turbines at least 26 miles offshore and that wouldn’t work for us.”
Toto also said the removal of the Harris amendment would allow the US Wind project off the Ocean City coast to continue to move forward.
“Naturally, we are pleased that what would have proved a major impediment to our project has not been realized,” he said. “We look forward to delivering the very clear benefits of economic development and job growth that this major offshore wind energy development project will deliver to Maryland, Ocean City and its citizens.”
US Wind Invests In Reef Project
Meanwhile, while US Wind was taking a hit this week for its perceived failure to live up to a promise for jobs and economic development in Maryland for awarding one of the first major contracts for the project to a Louisiana firm, the company showed in part its commitment to the local area with a substantial project in partnership with the Ocean City Reef Foundation (OCRF).
For years, the OCRF has been trying to re-establish an artificial reef on the historic Bass Grounds site about eight miles off the coast. In recent weeks, the OCRF has been working closely with The Nature Conservancy and US Wind on a partnership to develop an artificial reef project on the Bass Grounds site, which encompasses over four miles. This week, US Wind confirmed it was making a significant monetary and in-kind contribution to the redevelopment of the Bass Grounds reef lost decades ago.
OCRF President Captain Monty Hawkins said US Wind has agreed to donate all of the expense associated with placing 5,000 tons of boulder at the Bass Grounds along with other contributions to the project in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.
“It’s a dream project of mine,” said Hawkins. “This reef has been under Army Corps of Engineers permit since the late 1990s and its four-miles plus of natural seawhip bottom were lost in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Rich said this week US Wind’s partnership in the Bass Grounds restoration was symbolic of the company’s commitment to Ocean City and Maryland’s coastal areas.
“We’re a strategic partner with the Ocean City Reef Foundation not only to create that reef, but to restore the habitat that has long since been lost,” he said. “We believe reef building is so important and this is a significant project off the coast of Ocean City. Frankly, this is the kind of strategic partnership we envisioned when we joined the Ocean City chamber.”
Rich said the future offshore wind project is expected to enhance fishing off the resort coast and the commitment to the historic Bass Grounds artificial reef project will help contribute to that.
“We know how important it is to have a viable recreational fishery in Maryland and Ocean City,” he said. “We’re helping with the logistics and deploying the necessities, but were also contributing real dollars to this project. We’re only pleased to do so. This was a reef that was there before and we need to bring it back.”
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