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New Twist to Political Battle Over Eastern Shore Wind Farm

A new twist has surfaced in a long-running saga over what would be the first wind farm built on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

U.S.  Senator Barbara Mikulski, the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently added language to a defense appropriation bill that would prevent the Navy from finalizing an agreement to allow two dozen 600-foot-tall wind turbines at the proposed Great Bay Wind Energy Center in Somerset County. 

Mikulski said she wants approvals to wait until MIT completes a study next year of the effects of the turbines on an advanced military radar system at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, also known as PAX.

“I have been supportive of developing alternative energy sources," Mikulski said. "However, the Navy has commissioned a $2 million MIT study to make sure PAX’s test range is not disrupted. The study should be completed before next steps are taken. Better safe than sorry.”

That put Mikulski at odds with her close ally Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a fellow Democrat who this spring vetoed a bill that would have delayed the project for this type of study.  

To protest Mikulski’s move, a coalition of 21 environmental groups, led by the Chesapeake Climate Action network, held a telephone press conference on August 14 and sent a letter to the senator.

Paul Harris , development manager with Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy, warned that a delay of even a year would kill the $200 million project, because federal wind energy tax credits needed for construction would expire.

“If the project is not under construction and completed in construction by the end of 2015 that would mean it would not qualify for those tax credits, and potentially would no longer be able to move forward and bring clean, cheaper energy to the state of Maryland," Harris said.

In league with the environmentalists and the wind developers is the Somerset County Farm Bureau and Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., which want local family farms to benefit financially from leasing their land for the turbines.

Mary Ann Peterman, a fourth-generation  land owner in Somerset County, said her family farm would receive lease payments from a turbine and that the money would help keep the land in agriculture.

I’m very disappointed in Senator Mikulski’s decision to support the special interests of the defense industry over the protection of our environment, family farming, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for significant economic development in Somerset County," Peterman said. "As you know, we are the poorest county in the state of Maryland.”

But on Mikulski’s side is U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer, the powerful House Democratic whip from southern Maryland. During a hearing this spring, Hoyer warned that  defense contractors – whom he calls “customers” of the Patuxent River base  – are threatening to move their business out of Maryland.  The contractors worry their testing schedule would be limited by the Patuxent River base’s tentative agreement with the developer to allow the wind turbines but pause or curtail the blades during testing of aircraft.

“Customers who utilize the Atlantic test range for classified testing – customers – have indicated that the proposed curtailment agreement would be unacceptable." Hoyer said.  "If customers find an alternative installation to perform their testing, they could go elsewhere, which could put many high paying jobs and economic activity in our state at risk.”

So who will win in this political battle – those who want the skies free for military aircraft?  Or those who want the skies for clean energy?   The truth is, there is probably plenty of room in the sky for a compromise to  allow both.