Offshore wind blows back for 2013 session -- Gazette.Net


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Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) plans to reintroduce a bill to fund an offshore wind farm — legislation that has twice failed to make it out of the General Assembly, according to an administration spokeswoman.

“We’re hoping to introduce something similar to last year,” spokeswoman Takkira Winfield said last week, noting that the details of the bill still are being ironed out.

On Thursday, O’Malley sent a letter to President Barack Obama (D), encouraging him to look to Maryland for examples of clean energy, including the governor’s offshore wind proposal. “Maryland has chosen to aggressively develop our vast offshore wind resources,” O’Malley wrote.

The effort is complicated by the possible expiration of federal wind energy tax credits that, if they expire, would hit the industry hard, advocates say.

The production tax credit, which gives energy companies 2.2 cents for every kilowatt hour of wind power produced for the first 10 years, is slated to expire New Year’s Eve. “Don’t throw wind power off the fiscal cliff,” Lucy Bannon, field organizer for the nonprofit advocacy organization Environment Maryland, said at a news conference Nov. 28 in Baltimore to urge Marylanders to support wind power development.

O’Malley is very much in support of the tax credits being extended, although current plans are to introduce the legislation regardless of the tax credit, Winfield said. Having a partner in the federal government would further incentivize offshore wind development, she added.

If the tax credit expires, it will make offshore wind development that much costlier, said Nathan Hultman, director of environmental and energy policy programs at the University of Maryland, College Park’s School of Public Policy. “I doubt that Maryland would pick up the slack, but it does make it more expensive for the developers,” he said.

Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf, who chairs the committee where O’Malley’s bill died last year after passage in the House of Delegates, said he doesn’t think federal inaction would affect the success of the bill in Maryland. The bill charges residential energy customers $1.50 per month extra to fund offshore wind development.

“I had worked with the governor’s people on how to get that extra vote in my committee, and I think he’s optimistic that he has the votes to pass the bill,” Middleton said. “The same discussion was going on last year as is going on now with the federal programs, and it passed in the House [of Delegates].”

Success this time around with the bill would put O’Malley squarely in the center of the Democratic Party’s potential 2016 candidates, said Roy T. Meyers, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“This would fit very well with the party’s partial embrace of clean energy,” Meyers said, noting that O’Malley’s effort could segue nicely with movement by Obama toward alternative energy initiatives in his second term.

Meyers said failure likely wouldn’t hurt O’Malley much, as he has had other successes with high-profile legislative issues, such as this year’s legalization of same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for undocumented students. He also has environmental successes, like moving Maryland toward a renewable energy portfolio and making cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay a priority.

“I don’t think anyone can make the argument that he’s been a poor legislative leader,” Meyers said, even if he fails on offshore wind. “He has an awfully impressive record of convincing a legislature — granted, one that’s dominated by his own party — to go along with his plans.”

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Dist. 40) of Baltimore, who opposed the bill last session, said she continues to have questions regarding the legislation.

“I hope [the bill] is improved from the last time I saw it, but I still have concerns,” Pugh said, including whether minority businesses would be involved in the development of offshore farms.

“We’re asking the public, everyone, to pay to jump-start this industry,” Pugh said. “There ought to be some inclusiveness in ownership, given the diversity of the state.”

A September 2011 poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies showed that 62 percent of Marylanders would be willing to pay a $2 fee for electricity from wind farms.

Also, Pugh said, she would like to see more movement on studying the state’s natural gas reserves, which currently are sitting idle due to an executive order stalling permits for drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The controversial method pumps water and chemicals into the rock formations where gas is trapped.

Extensive studies on the health and environmental effects must be done before the state will issue permits, according to the executive order, but no funding mechanism for the studies has yet been proposed.

“Natural gas is going to lower utility bills more than any other method,” Pugh said. “It’s a job creator, and I would like to see Maryland get in on it.”

Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, also on the Finance Committee, said he also would like to see the governor move forward on natural gas.

“The governor has got to have higher priorities in his portfolio than wasting billions of dollars on the most expensive form of energy there is,” Pipkin said.

“Since this was originally introduced, the price of natural gas has plummeted, making wind energy make even less economic sense. ... We need to take a hard look at natural gas.”

hnunn@gazette.net