With Close Contacts, Md. Wind Project Gets Boost
Monday, July 23, 2007
When his plan for clean energy ran smack into a rare habitat on a rocky Appalachian ridge, Annapolis businessman Wayne L. Rogers turned to people he knew could help: his contacts in the Maryland General Assembly.
State law and the environmental protections it afforded all but scuttled his proposal last year for 24 windmills atop Backbone Mountain at the state's western edge. So Rogers waged a successful campaign to have the law changed -- and environmental review gutted -- for wind-energy projects such as his.
The case began three years ago when Rogers, a well-connected Maryland Democrat, applied to put up 26-story wind turbines on the state's highest spot, in Garrett County, 1 1/2 miles from the West Virginia line. The wind farm, he said, could power 20,000 homes.
Wind farms are turning air into electricity across the country. But they've been a tough sell in Maryland, where the best gusts blow on a steep, craggy habitat for birds, bats and other wildlife, land well protected by state regulations.
In November, regulators granted Rogers a limited permit for fewer windmills, citing possible damage to the mountaintop habitat. That month, he joined the transition team of then-Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley (D), who tapped Rogers's expertise as an energy adviser to power producers and governments. Among the policies advocated by the team that Rogers led: expanded wind power and less regulation.
As the General Assembly session got underway in January, Rogers, arguing that the law was too restrictive, turned to a powerful lobbyist and a top Democratic lawmaker in Annapolis. They helped win passage of a bill eliminating environmental review for wind farms no larger than 70 megawatts. Rogers's proposal fit under the cap at 40 megawatts. He plans to reapply for a permit at the same spot.
"What they really did was an end run around the entire approval process," said Bob DeGroot, an activist fighting wind projects in Western Maryland. "Because of the potential to kill millions of birds from global warming emissions, we're going to kill millions of birds" with wind turbines.
Rogers defended the new law, approved overwhelmingly by the legislature and signed into law by O'Malley in April, as a reflection of the state's emphasis on renewable energy. It brings Maryland's policy more in line with those of neighboring states, he said.
"The entire industry looked at Maryland as a laggard," Rogers said. "To get 90 percent of the legislature to agree on anything is way beyond politics." Two wind farms have been approved in Maryland, but neither has been built. No others are in the pipeline.
Rogers's business interests effectively decided the debate among environmentalists over what takes precedence: developing wind power or protecting nature.
Rogers is an international developer of hydroelectric power plants, including in China and Guatemala. He is also a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a prolific donor to a who's who of Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and O'Malley. Rogers was finance chairman of Benjamin L. Cardin's successful 2006 run for U.S. Senate in Maryland and Maryland chairman of Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. He is also a major fundraiser for Clinton's presidential bid.
To overcome the state's regulatory hurdles, Rogers, 52, enlisted Gerard E. Evans, one of Annapolis's top lobbyists. One of Evans's closest allies in the Maryland State House is the powerful Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Evans began his career as an aide in Miller's office, and Miller is godfather to Evans's twin daughters.