Josh Kurtz: Will Offshore Wind Industry’s Coming Out Party Include Franchot?

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), left, chats with Del. Richard W. Metzgar (R-Baltimore County) at Sparrows Point before a major announcement about the offshore wind industry last week. Metzgar voted against a key renewable energy bill in 2019. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The offshore wind industry in Maryland is having a coming-out party — and not a moment too soon, with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from the U.N., released Monday, showing just how endangered every inch of the planet is by global warming.

The party began last week at Tradepoint Atlantic, the massive industrial development in eastern Baltimore County, where hundreds of dignitaries, including Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), came to hear the CEO of US Wind, one of two companies attempting to erect wind energy turbines in the waters off of Ocean City, announce major expansion plans.

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It will continue next week right in Ocean City, where opposition to the proposed windmills’ proximity to the shore remains fierce, during the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference — a beloved and consequential gathering that is returning, with a vengeance, after a one-year, pandemic-induced hiatus.

US Wind is throwing a party for conference attendees at Skye Bar, a popular, airy establishment, in prime time, on Thursday evening, when at least seven or eight other major receptions or political fundraisers are taking place. And Ørsted, the other wind energy company hard at work in Maryland, is co-sponsoring the signature social event of the MACo conference, Friday evening’s crab feast, which attracts thousands of political leaders, government officials and statewide candidates.

Both companies will also have a major presence inside the massive convention hall during the conference itself. Ørsted is hosting a session Wednesday on how offshore wind can aid the state’s emerging green economy, while US Wind has a similar session scheduled for Friday and is sponsoring U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin’s town hall Friday as well. Both companies will also have booths in the exhibition hall at the convention center.

Outside of Ocean City, where local politicians and some business leaders still fear the sight of wind turbines from the beach will ruin the town’s real estate industry and tourist economy, there seems to be a consensus in Maryland now that offshore wind is good for the economy and, though fewer leaders vocalize it, despite the deepening climate crisis, good for the planet. The notion that promoting green energy is just the province of tree huggers is laughable. It’s big business — and growing bigger and more politically powerful all the time, as the Tradepoint Atlantic announcement at the Sparrows Point industrial site and MACo social schedule clearly illustrate.

A bipartisan group of political leaders were on hand at Sparrows Point, applauding US Wind’s expansion plans — including a Republican state lawmaker from Baltimore County, Del. Richard W. Metzgar, who had voted against the Clean Energy Jobs Act in 2019, the legislation that expands Maryland’s clean energy mandates. Hogan, who earlier in his tenure had vetoed a renewable energy bill, criticized the 2019 bill but allowed it to become law without his signature.

It’s still a little jarring — but also inspiring — to see Maryland’s environmental leaders rubbing shoulders with corporate chieftains and Republican politicians and union leaders, as they were at Sparrows Point last week (though none was invited to speak).

The newest U.N. report suggested climate catastrophe could be upon us as soon as 2030 — as if we haven’t seen plenty of climate-related disasters already this summer. Will wind turbines even be spinning off Ocean City by 2030?

One politician who was conspicuous by his absence at Sparrows Point, who once upon a time might have automatically received an invitation for such an event, given his former close alliance with Hogan, was Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who is now seeking to succeed the governor in 2022.

Like most Democratic candidates, Franchot is going big on renewable energy. Earlier this year, he issued 14 campaign pledges — which he referred to as “substantive commitments to the residents of Maryland,” rather than empty promises.

One included making Maryland the first net-zero carbon state in the U.S. and a net supplier of renewable energy, moving fully to renewables, by 2030 — a very ambitious timetable. Franchot also described building “renewable energy infrastructure” as part of his plan to create 100,000 “family supporting jobs” in the first 100 weeks of his administration. But nowhere does the platform specifically address offshore wind.

Franchot was a vocal opponent in the not-so-distant past, telling The Daily Times of Salisbury in 2012 that wind turbines would be “a boondoggle” for Ocean City.

“Offshore wind is the perfect example of politicizing a perfectly good energy source,” Franchot told the newspaper. “Windmills are terrific out in Western Maryland, out on the ridges, but they are an economic boondoggle waiting to happen by putting them out there in the ocean.”

Franchot offered these observations at a time when former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D), with whom Franchot frequently sparred, was trying to get the legislature to enable offshore wind development. Franchot expressed skepticism then that wind turbines in the Atlantic would produce the desire economic boost.

“That offshore wind mill will never exist because it’s economically a failure before it starts,” he told The Daily Times. “We are trying to put them out in the ocean because it’s good from some political agenda — because it makes somebody look like they are an environmentalist.”

One of the staples at MACo is Franchot’s annual boardwalk walk — often in Hogan’s company — and his annual fundraiser with the Ocean City business community. Franchot has been close to Ocean City business leaders for a long time, and was for years the leading champion of their No. 1 priority, starting the school year after Labor Day, a mantle that Hogan eventually picked up.

Next week, Franchot has a Thursday afternoon fundraiser set at Liquid Assets, a wine and whiskey bar in Ocean City. No doubt he’s expecting the Ocean City business community to make a strong showing once again.

Asked how Franchot squares his prior statements on offshore wind with his call for robust renewable energy development in Maryland today — and whether he actually supports wind turbines in federal waters off the coast of Ocean City — Franchot’s campaign manager, Ben Smith, said in an email to Maryland Matters: “Peter Franchot is committed to making Maryland the first net zero state in the nation, and wind plays an important role in achieving that, along with the other sources of renewable energy. He’s committed to working closely with each community to ensure the new infrastructure is accepted by its neighbors, and becomes a source of jobs for the surrounding area.”

That’s a defensible enough stance — supportive of the technology and its economic potential but sensitive to the desires of the local community, though Smith notably did not use the word “offshore.” But is that enough for Maryland environmentalists who have been pushing the clean energy boulder up the hill for years and years — or for the Ocean City business community Franchot has championed and that has supported him for so long?

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.