Ocean City officials are resisting a plan to build a wind farm off Maryland's coast — among the first of its kind in the nation — and they are taking their fight to Congress.
The $1.4 billion project, in the works for seven years, would put as many as 187 wind turbines off the coast of the state's best-known beach destination. Though the developer has already moved the proposed site farther off shore than originally planned, town officials say the towering structures will interrupt ocean views and hurt tourism.
"Our concern is with the distance from Ocean City," said Richard W. Meehan, the town's mayor, who said he first saw renderings of what the project would look like from the shore a few months ago. "This is far more dramatic than we had ever perceived."
The wind farm would be built 17 miles offshore, five miles farther east than developer U.S. Wind had originally planned. But Meehan and other town leaders say they are worried that is not far enough.
They have enlisted the help of Rep. Andy Harris — a Baltimore County Republican who represents the Eastern Shore — who tucked language into a spending bill this week that would prohibit the federal government from reviewing wind farms less than 24 miles off the coast.
Supporters say that would effectively kill the project, and at least one Maryland Democrat has vowed to fight Harris' effort.
Meehan and others in Ocean City are raising their concerns to Congress at a time when climate and the environment have taken a back seat to other issues on Capitol Hill. The same underlying spending bill that Harris attached his language to would strip more than $500 million from the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance.
Climate advocates say the location of the wind farm has been agreed upon for years. U.S. Wind, a subsidiary of Italian energy and construction company Toto Holding, was granted a lease covering 80,000 acres of the Atlantic Ocean by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2014, after the company bid nearly $9 million to secure it.
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the project would put Maryland on the leading edge of offshore wind energy. Only one other similar project has been built in the United States so far, off the coast of Rhode Island.
Tidwell described Harris as a "rabid climate denier" and said the congressman is using concerns raised in Ocean City as "an excuse to do his ideological bidding."
"It's hard to imagine a policy that's been more debated than offshore wind," he said. "Now you have Andy Harris using this last-minute, unfair tactic to derail a public good."
Harris said he is only responding to concerns raised by his constituents and said he believes U.S. Wind is "not willing to work with Ocean City to address all their concerns."
Meehan and other town officials described their talks with the company as at a standstill.
Paul Rich, director of project development for U.S. Wind, disputed that characterization. In addition to pushing the turbines five miles farther offshore, Rich said he believes the wind farm would drive economic growth in Ocean City — not hurt it.
"We want that dialog to continue," Rich said. "We've been engaged in discussing concerns from multiple interests for seven years."
U.S. Wind hopes to begin operation as soon as 2020, ramping up to a farm that would generate 750 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 500,000 homes. The company also plans to build $100 million worth of industrial and manufacturing facilities near the Tradepoint Atlantic redevelopment of the former Sparrows Point steel mill.
The Maryland Public Service Commission approved the project in May, though the state's role in overseeing its location and construction is limited. In order to finance construction, U.S. Wind needed the commission to allow it to sell renewable energy credits to help cover costs.
Commissioners also approved a second project, to be built by Skipjack Offshore Wind LLC. That $720 million wind farm would be built off the coast of Delaware, though the commission approved the company's request to sell the credits in Maryland.
Some have read the commission's approval as an indication that Gov. Larry Hogan supports the farm off Ocean City. Two of the independent commission's four current members are Hogan appointees. But the administration's position is more nuanced.
The Maryland Energy Administration recommended in April that the commission support the Skipjack project, but suggested it hold off on U.S. Wind. A Hogan spokeswoman did not say directly whether the governor, a Republican, supports the U.S. Wind project.
Spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor backs offshore wind generally, "however we believe it must be done in a way that minimizes impact and disruptions to both local tourism and quality of life.
"We will continue to advocate for any construction to take place as far offshore as possible to protect and preserve the natural beauty of our shoreline and the vital tourism industry that employs thousands of Marylanders," Chasse said in a statement.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, part of the U.S. Interior Department, is conducting its own review of the project. That process, which will eventually involve public input from supporters and detractors, is the one that Harris is hoping to slow.
A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Harris attached the amendment to legislation that would fund the Interior Department. A similar move by Maryland lawmakers two years ago — Democrats, in that instance — helped kill a land-based wind farm proposed in Somerset County.
But Harris' attempt could prove more complicated. House Republicans have indicated the underlying spending bill may never make it to a vote in its current form. Because of squabbling within the GOP, Republican leaders will likely have to negotiate with Democrats to fund the government.
The bill at issue is for the next fiscal year, which begins in October.
If Harris' amendment is approved in the House, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen — a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — would oppose it, a spokeswoman said. Democrats will have even more sway over the appropriations process in the Senate, where Republicans will need 60 votes to fund government agencies.
Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said the senator would seek a solution that "meets the needs of the local community while allowing the project to move forward."