Rep. Andy Harris erects new obstacle in path of Md. wind-farm projects

Source: By Rachel Siegel, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2017

At least one of two offshore wind projects approved by Maryland utility regulators in May could be in jeopardy after an amendment sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) that seeks to push the turbines farther from the coast was approved by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in the past week.

The amendment would block the use of federal funds to conduct reviews of site assessments or construction plans for any turbines closer than 24 nautical miles from the shoreline — funding that officials from one of the projects said is crucial to executing the program.

In May, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved subsidies for two projects off the coast of Ocean City — managed by U.S. Wind and Skipjack Offshore Energy — that would be the largest of their kind in the country.

The U.S. Wind project involves at least 41 turbines located at least 17 miles from shore, while the 15 Skipjack turbines would be sited at least 19.5 miles from shore, and 26 miles from the Ocean City Pier, according to the company’s website.

Harris, whose district includes Ocean City, said the amendment was necessary to protect seaside views and property values. But Paul Rich, director of project development for U.S. Wind, said the amendment “effectively kills the project.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The shape and size of U.S. Wind’s lease plot would allow for no more than two turbines more than 24 miles offshore, as opposed to the dozens slated under the original project, Rich said. He added that the amendment negates months of negotiations and conversations with Ocean City officials.

“As long as this project is to be in service by 2020, we needed review of this construction permit next year,” Rich said.

A spokesman for Deepwater Wind, the developer behind the Skipjack project, declined to comment.

Harris, the only Republican representing Maryland in Congress, is known for blocking laws he opposes in the District, including the city’s pro-marijuana initiatives and the “Death with Dignity” legislation .

In this case, Harris is seeking to alter projects that were approved by the public service commission after six years of public debate and hearings, and negotiations involving the Maryland General Assembly.

In its approval order, the commission cited overwhelming public support for the wind farms, which are projected to create more than 9,000 jobs and establish Maryland as a front-runner in the growing U.S. offshore wind-energy industry.

But Harris said the plans ignored the concerns of Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan and others in the coastal resort town about the visibility of the turbines.

“There was great concern that this company wasn’t working with Ocean City in making this project acceptable with regard to the height of the windmills and the view from the shore,” Harris said. “I’m in favor of the wind project as long as they come to an agreement with Ocean City.”

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), declined to comment Friday on Harris’s amendment.

But Chasse noted that the Hogan administration weighed in on the issue in April, supporting subsidies for the Skipjack project but declining to back subsidies for U.S. Wind’s project, in part because of concerns about its proximity to land.

“The [Public Service Commission] made a different decision, as is their ability as an independent board, but the administration was on record with our position during that process, and our position has not changed,” Chasse said.

When it approved the subsidies, the commission estimated that the offshore wind projects would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 19,000 tons per year for 20 years.

“It’s got an overwhelmingly deep and transparent examination by the public,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He called Harris “a legislator who is wildly out of step with the majority will of Marylanders.”

Mike Dunn, chief executive of the Greater Salisbury Committee — a nonprofit membership organization representing businesses, nonprofit entities and civic institutions — said Harris’s amendment undermines Maryland’s prospects as a front-runner in the development of offshore wind energy on the Atlantic Coast and is a fearful response to an unlikely decline in property values.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Dunn said. “I don’t see a mass exodus of people selling their property, nor do I see a contingent of Maryland residents suddenly going to New Jersey beaches because there are turbines off the coast of Ocean City. Respectfully, I don’t believe that’s the case.”