Hoyer confronts ‘Greek tragedy’ during Annapolis homecoming

Source: Josh Kurtz, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 2, 2014

He spent a dozen years in the state Legislature, culminating as president of the state Senate. His portrait hangs in the lobby of one of the two Senate office buildings here.Hoyer has returned often to the scene of his former triumphs — but yesterday was the first time since 1978 that he actually testified on legislation before a committee in Annapolis.Hoyer appeared at a state Senate Finance Committee hearing to speak in favor of a bill that would delay a proposed wind turbine project on farmland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near the Chesapeake Bay. Hoyer led a parade of political and civic leaders expressing fears that the wind farm could impede critical radar testing across the bay at Patuxent River Naval Air Station — and thus jeopardize the entire existence of the naval base, the economic driver for southern Maryland.

The issue, Hoyer and others said, isn’t just Pax River — it’s the future of all military installations in Maryland, as the Pentagon inevitably looks to downsize further in the years ahead.

“This is not about the environment,” he said, emphasizing his longtime support for alternative energy.

But proponents of the wind farm said much the same — that turning against the project could cripple the state’s ability to attract businesses in the burgeoning field of renewable energy.

As the bill’s proponents and foes forcefully advanced their arguments, state Sen. Delores Kelley (D) summed up the dilemma, which has vexed Maryland politicians over the past few weeks and strained traditional alliances (E&E Daily, March 25).

“It sounds like an internecine struggle,” she said. “It almost sounds like a Greek tragedy, because there’s a lot of good on both sides.”

Priority for O’Malley

Pioneer Green, a Texas company, wants to erect 25 wind turbines, each about 600 feet tall, and possibly another 25 eventually, near a transmission line on the Eastern Shore. The Great Bay wind project would help the state achieve its mandate to use 20 percent renewable energy by 2022 — and would be a nice accomplishment for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is preparing to run for president in 2016.

But given the billions of dollars Pax River contributes to the state economy annually, southern Maryland civic and political leaders like Hoyer have hit the panic button, suggesting that the Navy will take its classified radar systems elsewhere if tests can’t continue unimpeded.

No one from the Navy has ever said this. And in fact, there is no formal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process under way, because Congress is resistant to the idea. Navy officials attended yesterday’s hearing in Annapolis but did not testify, though one came forward to briefly answer lawmakers’ questions.

Instead, Hoyer supplied the committee with a written statement from an unnamed Navy official expressing reservations about the project. He also produced a letter that he co-signed with Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D), urging delay — even though both traditionally do not take sides on legislation in the State House.

The state House of Delegates has already passed legislation to delay the wind farm, but with the legislative session scheduled to end Monday, Hoyer made the 32-mile trek from the U.S. Capitol to the Maryland State House to boost the measure and was clearly the star of the 2 ½ hour hearing — though the top spectacle of the day took place earlier, when two tractors with miniature turbines on them circled the State House, signifying Eastern Shore farmers’ support of the Great Bay project. But for all the veteran congressman’s oratorical prowess, it was easy to see how some lawmakers would be confused.

The delay is necessary, Hoyer and others said, because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is completing a study at the Navy’s behest to determine ways to mitigate any interference the turbines might present to the Pax River’s operations. “I want to ensure that the location [of the wind farm] does not diminish Pax’s radar capabilities,” he said.

But the developers of the turbine project insist that any delay will kill it, given all the time and money they have invested obtaining permits and tax credits and developing infrastructure. While acknowledging that the project still requires myriad permits and other government approvals, they said an officially sanctioned delay from the state would rob them of “a rational process.”

Especially dismaying to the developers is the fact that they have reached an agreement in principle with military leaders to turn off the windmills anytime the Navy wants to test its radar systems at Pax River. But the fact that only one of the four Defense Department officials required to seal the deal has actually signed the agreement gives political leaders the opportunity to express their doubts.

“To be clear, as of today, there is no final signed curtailment agreement between the Navy and the Pioneer Green Great Bay developer,” Hoyer said, hitting the lectern with his index finger for emphasis in rhythm with each word.

Pamela Kasemeyer, a lobbyist for Pioneer Green, acknowledged as much and said the developers realize that the project cannot proceed without those required signatures. But she added that they’re willing to take their chances with the Navy and whatever concerns military officials raise — but not with an “arbitrary delay” imposed by the Legislature.

Asked by a senator whether a “curtailment agreement” would enable Pax River to test its radar without delay or fear of jeopardizing the nation’s national security, Gary Kessler, the naval base’s top civilian official, replied, “It’s not the Navy’s position to discuss operational security in an open forum.” He later acknowledged that the radar at Pax River isn’t in use anywhere else, though he would not say whether the military would ever entertain the notion of moving it elsewhere, as Hoyer and others suggested.

In a brief interview with E&E Daily after the hearing, Kessler would not say whether a signed agreement with Pioneer Green would quell the bill proponents’ warnings about the turbines interfering with military testing. “We’re still going through the process. … It’s hard to tell at this point,” he said.

Abigail Hopper, director of the Maryland Energy Administration and O’Malley’s top adviser on energy issues, said the bill is unnecessary because Pentagon officials would not sign any agreement with Pioneer Green until all their fears are allayed.

“I have a hard time believing that the United States Navy is going to be forced into an agreement that in any way jeopardizes the security of the nation,” she said.

That prompted state Sen. David Brinkley (R) to accuse the O’Malley administration of “playing a game of chicken with the Navy.”

O’Malley, through Hopper, has signaled his support for the wind farm project but has stopped well short of threatening to veto the measure if it gets through the Legislature. Because it is the last year of O’Malley’s and state lawmakers’ terms, he can veto the bill with little threat of it being overridden — unless legislators return to Annapolis later this year for a lame-duck special session, which is unlikely.

Even so, the wind farm proponents aren’t taking any chances. With the bill to delay the project all but certain to get out of the 11-member Senate Finance Committee, with the chairman and vice-chairman strong supporters, proponents are now hoping to attach an amendment to it on the Senate floor that would say the project can’t go forward if the Navy doesn’t sign the mitigation agreement.

“Finding a win-win solution for the state of Maryland has been our key objective,” said Adam Cohen, Pioneer Green’s vice president.