For Southern Maryland, the Patuxent River Naval Air Station is an economic engine like no other. It accounts for $6.6 billion in economic activity, including 41,185 jobs, so it's small wonder that elected leaders from that region of the state are extremely protective of it, and that includes House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
But at what cost? One of the more curious events of the most recent General Assembly session was the passage of legislation that would bar the Maryland Public Service Commission from approving a wind-powered generating facility between now and July 1 of next year within a 56-mile radius of the Navy base. That includes Somerset County where a $200-million wind project would likely be scrapped as a result.
The fear is that the tall windmills would interfere with a unique radar system used for testing the stealthiness of aircraft. But the Texas-based developer has already agreed to shut down his 25 turbines when necessary to accommodate the testing, and a Navy spokesman has made it more or less clear that this makes the project acceptable.
That's not good enough for Mr. Hoyer, who personally lobbied for the ban by arguing that a wind farm of any kind so close to the base still threatens to undermine activities there. He and his supporters have concluded that the mere inconvenience potentially posed by the presence of the turbines on the lower Eastern Shore might cause the Navy to relocate some or all of Pax River operations the next time the Pentagon realigns its assets.
But allowing this theoretical inconvenience, one that the Navy seems hardly bothered about, to cause a real and present hardship — the loss of a $200 million investment in one of Maryland's poorest counties — seems absurd. It's made all the more so by the fact that the far more serious threat facing Pax River is climate change — not only because of the global instability and military conflicts that global warming is bound to foster but because the base is actually located on the water. Rising sea levels pose a problem on the Patuxent River as much as anywhere.
That's one of the reasons Maryland has committed to getting 20 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2022. But if lawmakers are going to ban wind farms from 40 percent of the state (which is what the 56-mile zone essentially produces — 3,875 square miles of no-turbine land) that's never going to happen. Coal-fired power plants are a leading producer of greenhouse gases, and Maryland's have suddenly gotten new life and for the most trivial of reasons — a possible, theoretical, maybe-imagined impact on the Navy's eventual attitudes about Pax River.
Gov. Martin O'Malley ought to be embarrassed for not nipping this exercise in delusion in the bud weeks ago when it was first presented to the General Assembly. When the governor championed wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy during his first term, he didn't say it was all up to how Southern Maryland's Navy contractors felt about it. He seemed a bit more serious about his commitment than that.
And what about Mr. O'Malley's commitment to the concept of "One Maryland?" Somerset County's average unemployment rate stood at 10.2 percent last year, the second highest of any county in the state. The proposed 150-megawatt Great Bay Wind Energy Center would create badly-needed jobs as well as an estimated $2.9 million in local tax revenue the first year alone. The Eastern Shore deserves its day in the sun — and wind.
Mr. Hoyer and his allies have already demonstrated their never-say-die political devotion to Pax River and the U.S. Navy, but enough is enough. It's time Governor O'Malley vetoed this bill and gave wind power a chance to flourish in this state. Maryland is nowhere near reaching its renewable energy commitment as it is. (As of 2012, Maryland was up to 7.9 percent, or 1,120 megawatts). Its goals are virtually unattainable under such restrictions.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun