By Rory D. Sweeney
Here’s a shocker: even politicians feel the need to keep up with the Joneses.
A congressman from Ocean City, Md., successfully inserted language into a U.S. House appropriations bill on Tuesday to effectively force two wind turbine projects to move farther offshore from his district.
Why? Because he apparently noticed that a project sited off Virginia was much farther out.
Rep. Andy Harris (R) got the amendment added to the 2018 appropriations bill for the U.S. Interior Department, EPA and other agencies. The amendment forbids any funds from being used to review wind projects that aren’t at least 24 nautical miles from the Maryland shoreline. The House Appropriations Committee voted 30-21 to send the bill to the House floor.
“They’ve got to put them further out, just like they’re doing in Virginia Beach,” Harris said during the hearing on the bill. “That’s all this does.”
Blinking Lights on the Horizon
Harris was referring to two projects approved in May by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which awarded offshore renewable energy credits to US Wind and Deepwater Wind’s Skipjack Offshore Energy. US Wind’s proposed 62-turbine, 248-MW project, to be built 12 to 15 nautical miles offshore at a cost of $1.375 billion, would begin operations in January 2020. Skipjack plans a 15-turbine, 120-MW, $720 million project 17 to 21 miles offshore that will be operational in November 2022. (See Md. PSC OKs 368 MW in Offshore Wind Projects.)
The PSC also considered visibility of the turbines from the shore, requiring US Wind to locate its project as far to the east of the designated wind energy area as practical. Commissioner Anthony O’Donnell also charged the developers with using the “best commercially available technology to lessen views of the wind turbines by beachgoers and residents, both during the day and at night.”
That’s not enough for Harris. The project off Virginia Beach announced earlier this month by Dominion Energy and DONG Energy will be sited 27 miles offshore. (See Dominion Plans 12-MW Offshore Wind Project, 2nd in US.)
“So, it’s not that the technology is not possible. It’s just … they want to save money. They want to bring it in close,” Harris said. “We want them to just site this out 24 nautical miles, or around the curvature of the earth.”
He accused the companies of not working with Ocean City officials and said that the turbines were initially planned to be shorter before the companies raised them. The only operational offshore wind project in the country is off Block Island in Rhode Island, but “this one is much, much larger,” Harris said.
His amendment would “either make them reduce the height a little bit or move them farther out so when you go to the ocean in Ocean City, Md., you’re not looking at red blinking lights on the horizon.”
‘It’s the Physics’
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the Interior Subcommittee chairman, supported the amendment but expressed concerns that it might have impacts beyond Harris’ local issue.
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), said the Congressional Budget Office estimated the amendment would cost the government $6 million in contract breaches and lost rental receipts — not including liabilities from economic losses — that will “most likely” be paid by EPA. She opposed the measure and pointed out that it interferes with the Maryland General Assembly’s action to incentivize offshore wind production. (See Maryland OKs Offshore Wind Bill.)
Harris’ amendment also removes $6 million in EPA funding for environmental programs and management.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), whose Baltimore-area district neighbors Harris’, also opposed the measure. He said the PSC effort has been in development for 10 years, stands to create 5,000 jobs in his district and will raise $74 million in state tax revenue.
Ruppersberger’s district would gain additional benefits. The PSC order requires the developers to use Baltimore-area port facilities for construction, operations and maintenance, as well as to fund almost $40 million in upgrades at the Tradepoint Atlantic (formerly Sparrows Point) shipyard in Baltimore County and invest at least $76 million in a steel fabrication plant in the state.
Ruppersberger said he participated in the negotiations that got US Wind to move its project 17 miles offshore and was satisfied with a subsequent rendering of the view from the beach. However, US Wind’s website maintains the project it will be 12 miles offshore.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) called the amendment “precedent-setting” and said there are “more appropriate and technically precise ways to direct wind turbine placement” than by “advancing the site location through arbitrary and random legislative actions untethered to research or appropriate public review.”
She cited wind development in her region along the Great Lakes as an example and noted that the fastest-growing job category in that area is wind technician.
Harris countered that “there’s nothing arbitrary about this.”
“It’s the curvature of the earth. It’s the physics. It’s, ‘You will see these windmills unless they’re 27 miles out,’” he said, apparently forgetting that his amendment called for only a 24-mile setback. “This doesn’t kill the project, this delays it. … They’re halfway there.”
He cited a North Carolina State University survey in which 54% of respondents said they would be unwilling to stay wherever turbines are visible.
Mike Tidwell, the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called the move “devious and underhanded” in a statement.
“Congressman Andy Harris is working to dismantle a yearslong, inclusive process to bring offshore wind to the shores of Maryland in a rider to a bill over which Marylanders will have no say,” he said. “Marylanders overwhelmingly want offshore wind because they know it would bring good jobs and boost the state’s clean energy economy.”
US Wind Director of Project Development Paul Rich told USA TODAY that the amendment would leave room for just one turbine.
“This is not helpful,” Rich said. “This stops a process before it’s even begun. It’s totally at odds with his constituency.”