House panel approves offshore wind farm bill

A key part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's environmental agenda cleared an important hurdle Monday as his bill seeking to foster development of an offshore wind farm near Ocean City won approval from a House committee.

The Economic Matters Committee voted 13-9 to send a scaled-back version of the legislation to the House floor, where it is likely to receive a vote by the end of the week.

The House committee's action pleased environmental activists, who were dismayed last year when an earlier version of O'Malley's bill never emerged from committee in either the House or the Senate.

"This could be a stepping-stone to having Maryland be at least one of the centers of this new industry," said Tommy Landers, policy advocate for Environment Maryland.

The initiative still faces an uphill climb to win passage this year. A companion measure has been stuck in the Senate Finance Committee. But Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, its chairman, said Monday he believes the House action improves the chances the bill will win a majority on his panel.

Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said he expects his committee to make similar changes. If the bill clears his committee, Middleton said, he believes it will pass the full Senate.

The legislation seeks to create conditions that would encourage a developer to build a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City to provide a clean form of alternative energy for the Maryland market. It would do so by guaranteeing the developer a customer base once the wind farm was up and running.

Under the original legislation, Maryland ratepayers would have had to pay up to $2 a month extra on their bills once the wind farm was built to help cover the extra generation costs. Under amendments adopted by the committee Monday, the possible fee was reduced to $1.50.

For industrial and commercial users, the 2.5 percent increase allowed under the original bill was lowered to 1.5 percent.

O'Malley's press secretary, Raquel Guillory, said the administration considers the committee action good news. "We consider this a significant step forward to a more sustainable future," she said. Guillory said the governor hopes the Senate panel will follow suit.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the practical effect of the changes would be to decrease the size of the possible wind farm from one with about 60 turbines to one with about 40 — a number he nevertheless called "an important start."

"It signals that Maryland is ready to make offshore wind power a public policy," he said.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, said the reduction in the potential cost to electricity customers is the most important change made to the bill. "We want to limit the exposure to our ratepayers," he said.

O'Malley has contended that the costs of offshore wind development would be outweighed by the benefits of broadening the diversity of the state's energy sources and developing a new industry that could yield thousands of jobs.

A significant minority of the committee, including all of its Republicans, was not persuaded. Dorchester County Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, the House minority whip, said she saw few benefits in the project for the Eastern Shore.

"My constituents are the ones who are going to live with this project," she said, adding that they have the "most at stake and the least to gain."