Md.’s O’Malley vetoes bill delaying wind farm projects, saying he fears ‘chilling’ effect

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on Friday vetoed a bill that would have delayed — and likely derailed — a proposed wind farm in Somerset County, saying the legislation would send “a chilling message” to the clean-energy industry if it became law.

The governor’s decision was praised by environmentalists and some officials on the Eastern Shore as a way to bring much-needed jobs and green energy to a part of the state that is struggling economically.

But it ran counter to the wishes of U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Southern Maryland lawmakers, who argue that a wind farm would compromise radar that tests the stealth capabilities of fighter jets at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, just across the Chesapeake Bay.

“I am deeply disappointed by Governor O’Malley’s veto,” Hoyer said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “This veto fails to demonstrate Maryland’s strong commitment and support for the mission of Patuxent River Naval Air Station.”

He noted that the bill passed the General Assembly “with a strong, veto-proof majority” and was also backed by U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).

Proponents of the wind farm project had urged O’Malley to overturn the legislation, arguing that it could scare away wind developers and taint the governor’s reputation as a dedicated environmentalist as he contemplates a White House bid.

O’Malley, who has used his veto power sparingly with a General Assembly dominated by fellow Democrats, said in a letter to legislative leaders that the project’s developers had “played by the rules” and that there are other safeguards against the risks cited by opponents of the project.

“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,” O’Malley wrote. “If this moratorium were to take effect, it would send a chilling message to clean energy investors, developers, manufacturers, construction firms, engineers and sustainable businesses that the state can change the rules in the eleventh hour.”

Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy has proposed building 25 whirling turbines in Somerset County, bringing hundreds of construction jobs and extra income for farmers. The developers thought they had reached a compromise with military leaders that would protect the radar capabilities at the Patuxent River base, simply by turning the turbines off during test flights.

But in the final days of Maryland’s annual legislative session, at the urging of Hoyer and lawmakers from Southern Maryland, the General Assembly voted to delay wind projects within 56 miles of the base until June 2015 — effectively killing plans for the Great Bay Wind Center.

The vote was 31 to 16 in the Senate and 112 to 22 in the House.

There are still numerous regulatory and procedural hurdles to clear before the wind farm can be built. But Pioneer Green Energy said in a statement that it is eager to move forward with the project.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of several environmental groups that praised O’Malley’s action, said the veto “will accelerate the development of East Coast wind farms that will bring new jobs to Maryland while helping to slow sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he plans to survey his members to assess whether there is interest in returning to Annapolis for a special session to override the veto. An override requires a three-fifths vote in each chamber.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he understands that O’Malley made a judgment call.

“He’s the environmental guru of Democratic governors, and rightly so,” Miller said. “He staked out his claim to wind power a long time ago. . . . I personally think Pax River is too important to risk.”

Turning the turbines on and off would publicly signal the start of test flights, which has concerned some of the base’s customers, a group that includes branches of the military, contractors and foreign governments, said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Those customers could then take their business elsewhere.

“We are fighting for the jobs we already have, not the ones we might have,” Middleton said.

Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Worcester), who represents Somerset County, countered that O’Malley’s decision could mean more jobs for his region if the project moves forward. Mathias said he was very pleased with O’Malley “for standing with us on the Eastern Shore.”

Over the course of eight annual legislative sessions, O’Malley has vetoed 13 pieces of legislation on their merits. By comparison, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed 86 initiatives during his four years in Annapolis.

Among the bills previously vetoed by O’Malley were one that loosened restrictions on how law-enforcement agencies could dispose of handguns and another that altered the procedures for issuing court subpoenas.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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