Long-stalled efforts to develop wind-powered turbine fields in Western Maryland have shifted this year to the state capital, where the firepower behind the proposed legislation is potent.
The Senate earlier this week passed a bill that would streamline the public approval process for wind-generating stations, which proponents argue will put Maryland on par with other states that have already invested millions of dollars in renewable energy.
The key figure asking the state to relax its regulations is Wayne Rogers, a well-connected entrepreneur who has been a generous donor to Democratic campaigns across the state and the country, according to campaign finance figures. Rogers, a former state Democratic Party chairman, led Gov. Martin O'Malley's transition team on energy.
His Annapolis firm, Synergics Energy Services LLC, wants to build a wind farm on Maryland's tallest mountain ridge in Garrett County.
‘‘One only need look at the track record of the renewable [energy] projects in the state to know that there needs to be some ... reform to allow meaningful public participation and meaningful investigation of wind projects, but at the same time not bury them in so much red tape that we never get one done," said Frank V. Maisano, a spokesman for a group of mid-Atlantic wind developers that includes Rogers.
But the proposal, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., has generated plenty of resistance, ranging from local residents to environmental groups to the Department of Natural Resources. DNR testified that scaling back the public review process would lead to less public involvement, the destruction of wildlife habitats and the loss of scenic views.
That conflicts with the governor's position.
‘‘A lot of these things are going to require us to strike a balance between aesthetic interest, environmental interest and the interest of having a diversified portfolio of cleaner renewable energy," O'Malley (D) said Tuesday after swearing in four members of the Public Service Commission.
DNR's concerns are justified in the short term, O'Malley acknowledged.
‘‘Looking at it in a longer-term fashion, I think that we have an interest ... in accelerating the development of wind in our state where the forces are amenable to that and the place where that can be done best is in Western Maryland," he said. ‘‘So I would think that the long-term gain of joining the more streamlined regulatory process of our neighbors in Pennsylvania and West Virginia seems to make sense to me."
Before passing the bill, the Senate Finance Committee amended it to require public hearings be held locally to ensure wind farm proposals pass environmental muster and conform to local land-use policies.
‘‘I understand people's complaints," said Finance Committee Chairman Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf. ‘‘I don't know that I'd want it in my back yard."
The legislative effort is not about helping Wayne Rogers, Maisano said: It's about bringing renewable energy to Maryland.
‘‘We'll stand on top of Backbone Mountain and shout why these projects are good," Maisano said. ‘‘We love public hearings because it gives us an opportunity to say why these projects are good for Garrett County, good for the state."
The state must do whatever it can to diversify its energy portfolio to keep electricity rates down and reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, lawmakers said.
‘‘We've got to get away from these fossil-fuel fired plants," said Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach. ‘‘Wind energy is a valuable source of renewable energy."
Who benefits from the initiative is secondary, said one of the legislature's energy experts. ‘‘Sometimes you have to look at the message, not the messenger," said Sen. E. J. Pipkin (R-Dist. 36) of Stevensville.
Still, it's hard to overlook the political connections.
Rogers was the state chairman of Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential bid in 2004. Twice, he played golf with former president Bill Clinton. And in 2000, Rogers and his wife ushered in the millennium at a Clinton White House party, with a guest list that included actors Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.
Local lawmakers remain wary of embracing the measure because Western Marylanders cherish two things that wind farms could endanger: the environment and the scenery.
‘‘We should not take away the ability of constituents to state their voice on this issue," said Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident.
Across the hall, Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Dist. 1) of Grantsville said it isn't proper for the legislature to tinker with the utility review process when it has a direct impact on only one area of the state.
The General Assembly's passage of several clean air initiatives in recent years makes it important for the legislature to pass laws that will help develop renewable energy projects, lawmakers said.
‘‘On the one hand, we're requiring renewable portfolio standards on the energy companies, but on the other hand, no one is coming to Maryland to develop renewable energy," said Del. Brian K. McHale (D-Dist. 46) of Baltimore.
Staff Writer Douglas Tallman contributed to this report.