Gov. Martin O'Malley vetoed a bill Friday that would have halted a huge wind energy project on the Eastern Shore, prioritizing renewable energy over the concerns of a major military installation in Southern Maryland.
In his veto message, O'Malley said the fight against climate change trumped what he termed unnecessary fears about the project's impact on the region's prized military base, Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary's County.
"The real threat to Pax River is not an array of wind turbines on the Eastern Shore but rising sea levels caused by climate change," O'Malley said, using the base's nickname.
The bill would have imposed a 15-month moratorium on land-based wind projects across a large swath of the state, effectively killing a $200 million wind farm that promised scores of jobs to economically depressed Somerset County. But it also would have protected the military base across the bay from 25 wind turbines towering 600 feet above ground and possibly interfering with the base's high-tech radar tests.
The issue pitted the Eastern Shore against Southern Maryland, military interests against environmentalists, and O'Malley against powerful Democratic leaders in the state's congressional delegation.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, testified in Annapolis to persuade lawmakers to pass the moratorium, saying a tentative deal to shut down the turbines during radar testing did not go far enough to protect the base. And if the base compromised its ability to test the stealth capability of aircraft, he and others argued, it could give the military an excuse to move operations out of Southern Maryland.
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger also urged delay of the wind project proposed in Somerset County.
The governor's office received several thousand emails, calls and petition signatures urging him to veto the bill, as opposed to fewer than 200 supporting it, according to Abigail R. Hopper, his energy adviser.
In his letter, O'Malley said that federal and regulatory rules protect Pax River from interference by wind turbines, and the moratorium conflicts with the state's long-standing goal to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources such as wind. O'Malley said putting an end to the Great Bay Wind Energy Center would make it hard to attract future projects.
"Ironically, the greater inconvenient truth threatening Pax River — and the billions of economic activity generated by that facility — is climate change," O'Malley said. "To address that threat, we must encourage the development of clean, renewable energy."
When Navy officials met with the governor this year to outline their concerns about the wind project, they volunteered that rising sea level from climate change was their biggest fear for the future of the naval air station, according to Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who had urged the governor to veto the bill.
Tidwell said O'Malley recounted his meeting with the Navy officials toward the end of the legislative session, as the Senate debated the bill. An administration official present at the meeting confirmed the account.
A Navy spokeswoman declined to comment.
Hoyer issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed" by the veto. He also urged the Navy not to finalize an agreement with the wind project developer until a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study is completed into whether "available technologies" could be used to avoid radar interference when the turbines spin.
"The Navy has invested $2 million in this study and should wait to receive its results and recommendations before moving forward," Hoyer said.
Southern Maryland lawmakers had argued that the Great Bay Wind project would threaten the area's major employer and economic anchor. Hoyer said the base supports more than 20,000 jobs and contributes $7.5 billion to the state's economy.
State Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from St. Mary's County, criticized the governor for not taking a more cautious approach to protecting Pax River. He suggested the veto was politically motivated, linking it to O'Malley's interest in running for president in 2016.
"Geez, governor, what do you say to 22,000 federal employees whose jobs may be in jeopardy?" Dyson said. "You're their governor, you just put their jobs in jeopardy because of some political notion of yours that it may get you to the White House."
Dyson called O'Malley's logic "gobbledygook," and said it was "foolhardy" to assume Pax River would not be threatened. "If this gets you to [the] presidency, God help us."
Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green Energy, the Texas-based wind developer, thanked O'Malley for allowing the project to move forward. He also pledged to "continue to work with the military to ensure our project and the base's military testing will successfully coexist."
The Somerset wind project also needs approvals from state and federal regulators. For instance, regulators must approve a plan to make up for the potential of the turbines to kill protected bald eagles that frequent the area.
Early in the debate in Annapolis, O'Malley expressed concern about whether the moratorium was necessary, given negotiations between developers of the Great Bay Wind project and the military base to shut off the windmills whenever asked.
The developer had reached a tentative deal with the Navy to stop the turbines whenever radar tests were to be conducted on the stealth qualities of aircraft. But the Navy held off signing it after Hoyer urged delay. A Navy spokesman had said during the legislative debate that the agreement needed to be revised.
On the final day of the legislative session, O'Malley told reporters he was struggling to understand why the bill was needed. On Friday, its veto was welcomed by Eastern Shore lawmakers who had fought against the moratorium.
"It's really good news," said state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican from Dorchester County. "A couple hundred jobs is a major economic boon to a county as poor and with an unemployment rate as high as Somerset."
The developer estimates the project will generate $40 million in tax revenue and support hundreds of construction jobs.
Environmentalists had warned O'Malley that the legislation would discourage wind energy development and undermine efforts to fight climate change. They hailed his veto.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, a national climate activist group, said the governor had shown that "indeed, climate change is our No. 1 national security threat."
"I don't know many politicians who truly care about climate change," said Tidwell of Chesapeake Climate Action. "O'Malley loses sleep over it. He thinks about it a lot."
O'Malley has issued only a handful of vetoes during his eight years as governor. To override this one, the General Assembly would have to convene a special session before lawmakers begin their next term in January.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he doubted lawmakers would petition to call a special session, and he declined to offer his opinion on O'Malley's veto of the bill beyond saying, that 112 "members of the House of Delegates voted for it. The governor has the right to make that decision."