It isn’t surprising that Ocean City officials would want to hire uber-lobbyist Bruce Bereano to help them push two controversial wind energy projects farther offshore in an effort to protect their lucrative tourist economy.
What is surprising is that Bereano – arguably the most successful lobbyist in Annapolis history – says he’ll be focusing most of his energies on Congress and the federal regulatory process, not on his familiar State House stomping grounds.
But some stakeholders in the long battle to bring offshore wind energy to Maryland are skeptical. Bereano, by his own admission, has limited experience lobbying Congress.
“You don’t hire Bruce Bereano to go to Capitol Hill when he has spent 40 years in Annapolis,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
So will there be a push in the 2018 General Assembly session, which begins on Jan. 10, to kill or alter the offshore wind projects? Could a symbolic election-year “messaging” bill emerge, even if it has no chance of passing? The answer to these questions are fraught with political implications.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan could not be reached for comment Thursday about the town’s recently-inked $65,000-a-year contract with Bereano. But Ocean City Councilman Tony DeLuca told Ocean City Today this about Bereano last month: “He knows everyone in Annapolis, he has the reputation, and he’s the right man for the job.”
At issue are two wind energy projects that the Maryland Public Service Commission approved in May. It enabled two companies, U.S. Wind, Inc. and Skipjack Offshore Energy, LLC to collectively construct 368 megawatts of capacity.
The decision to approve both projects was a surprise to most stakeholders — including the companies themselves, who assumed they were competing against each other. U.S. Wind was allowed to build 61 turbines 12-15 miles offshore, roughly parallel to downtown Ocean City. Skipjack’s 15-turbine project would be slightly farther to the north, at the Maryland-Delaware border, 17-21 miles offshore.
Both companies are following guidelines from 2013 state legislation authorizing offshore wind energy. According to a Public Service Commission consultant, Maryland residential ratepayers would pay no more than $1.40 a month on their utility bills to help subsidize the projects.
By most accounts, Ocean City officials were not very active during the three-year debate in Annapolis that resulted in the enabling state legislation, and they weren’t especially vocal during most of the PSC approval process. But then, just days before the PSC ruling, they saw an artist’s rendering of what U.S. Wind’s turbines would look like from the beach, and they freaked out.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) decided to help. Harris, who represents Ocean City in Congress, attached an amendment to a House appropriations bill in July, which said that if a Maryland wind project isn’t at least 24 miles from the shore, the federal government cannot spend money to evaluate it.
“If construction of these turbines too close to the shoreline will reduce property value or tourism, then the turbines may cause more issues than they solve,” Harris explained at the time.
In response, Paul Rich, U.S. Wind’s director of project development, told Energywire that Harris’ amendment “effectively…kills our project.”
Coincidentally, Harris held a fundraiser in Ocean City Wednesday evening at Seacrets, the popular entertainment complex on the bay.
Whether Harris’ amendment remains in the final omnibus spending package that emerges from Congress is anybody’s guess. But it provides something of a marker for Ocean City officials.
“They are not opposed to wind power as one of several renewable energy sources, but they strongly and very solidly oppose the placement and location of the wind turbines, because by all accounts these turbines are clearly visible and noticeable on the beaches of Ocean City as well as when you’re on any floors of buildings and hotels and condominiums,” Bereano said.
Dominion Energy is installing two wind turbines on an experimental basis off the coast of Virginia Beach — 27 miles from the shore.
“They need to be moved to a location where they are not visible at all from Ocean City,” Bereano said. “This is a very strong and emotional issue.”
Bereano said he had been hired to monitor the “significant federal [approval] process” that follows now that the state PSC has OK’d the two sites.
But in his long career as a lobbyist, Bereano has barely prowled the halls of Congress or federal regulatory agencies professionally. He conceded that he’d spoken to members of the Maryland congressional delegation “three or four times” on behalf of in-state clients who had issues before the federal government, but had otherwise not spent much time on Capitol Hill beyond an internship with Bobby Kennedy when he was in college and work for former U.S. Sen. Joe Tydings (D-Md.) when he was in law school.
“Congress still operates the same,” Bereano said. “I feel comfortable that I can follow the process, that I know the process.”
The next moves by Bereano and Ocean City leaders will be watched closely by every stakeholder.
If he is determined to find a state lawmaker to introduce a bill benefiting one of his clients, he will. He may even control certain legislators’ votes in some instances. Whether he has the juice to slow or halt the development of offshore wind is another matter entirely, given the fact that the Public Service Commission has already acted.
Rich, the U.S. Wind executive, did not respond to a phone message Thursday.
House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D) said Thursday that he had not yet discussed the matter with Bereano and hadn’t heard of any pending legislation. Davis said he sympathized with the worries of Ocean City leaders but noted that “the state is committed to the clean energy industry.”
Davis said he was open to addressing the town’s concerns but wasn’t sure what could legally be done. “We’ve got two very important interests here,” he said.
Wind energy is popular in Maryland, and advocates believe they can defeat any measure in the State House to slow it.
A poll of 671 Maryland residents by Goucher College in Baltimore last month found that 75 percent of those surveyed said seeing wind from the beach would make “no difference” when deciding whether to vacation in Ocean City. Eleven percent said seeing windmills on the horizon would make them “less likely” to vacation in Ocean City, while 12 percent said it would make them “more likely” to stay there.
“It’s a big-tent coalition that got this moving in the first place, and it’s only gotten bigger,” said Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
But with an election year looming, politics are everywhere.
Hogan has not said much publicly about the wind energy proposals off Ocean City but he has tried to amass a strong environmental record — though not always to the satisfaction of green groups and Democrats. Hogan embraced a measure to ban fracking in Maryland earlier this year, and supporters note that Hogan’s appointees on the PSC joined the appointees of former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to unanimously approve both wind projects. That included PSC Commissioner Anthony O’Donnell, a former state House minority leader who voted against O’Malley’s wind energy legislation when he served in the General Assembly. After the PSC vote, O’Donnell issued a statement saying he was confident that Ocean City’s concerns were being addressed.
Some stakeholders said they wouldn’t be surprised to see Republicans introduce legislation next session to alter the wind energy law — even if it doesn’t have a prayer of passing — as a slap to O’Malley and his national ambitions.
One of Hogan’s top priorities for 2018, beyond re-election, is to get more Republicans elected to the state Senate. Democrats hold a robust 33-14 majority in that chamber, and it takes 29 Senate votes to override a governor’s veto. Republicans are working hard to pick up the five seats they’ll need to forestall any veto overrides, and state Sen. Jim Mathias (D), who represents Ocean City, is one of their top targets.
Mathias — an ex-Ocean City mayor and former small business owner there — voted to authorize the wind turbines in 2013, after opposing the measure the year before. He fully expects the wind turbines to be a major issue during his tough re-election fight against state Del. Mary Beth Carozza (R), though he plans to make the case that he did the right thing.
Carozza, who did not respond to a request for comment emailed to an aide Thursday, wasn’t in the legislature when the enabling legislation for offshore wind passed. But Republicans could introduce a bill on wind energy just to force another uncomfortable vote for Mathias and other Democrats seeking re-election in conservative districts.
“Is this going to become an issue against me?” Mathias mused. “Everything is going to become an issue. Is this the right issue?”