ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- The Maryland House of Delegates voted 88-47 on Friday for a scaled-back measure to help develop offshore wind off the coast of Ocean City in as soon as five years.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is backing the legislation again this year after it failed last year over concerns about its costs.
Supporters, who say offshore wind has great potential to create jobs and reduce pollution, emphasized during debate that this bill is very different. Residential utility customers would pay about $1.50 a month if offshore wind turbines are developed. For commercial ratepayers, rate increases have been reduced from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent.
Delegate Benjamin Kramer, D-Montgomery, pointed out that the risk of financing wind turbines will be on the developer, not ratepayers.
"Yes, there may be a small -- a small -- increase to Maryland's ratepayers, but the potential for reducing our carbon footprint is dramatic," Kramer said.
But opponents, mostly Republicans, questioned the viability of building wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean. They also pointed out that Maryland could be extracting natural gas that is readily available in western Maryland in the Marcellus Shale. The O'Malley administration has delayed drilling there for further study, out of concern for environmental damage and water contamination.
"The problem is this technology is unproven," Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, said. "Maryland is like Don Quixote running out 23 miles to sea to see if we can put up and erect some windmill, when in fact what we should be doing is staying here and fighting the real problems with the technology and getting the energy out of the ground that we have and putting people to work now."
Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George's, noted that ratepayers won't begin paying anything extra until wind turbines are actually built and generating electricity. He also underscored that the measure doesn't mandate anything.
"This is not something we're saying that we have to do," Davis said. "We're saying that if this is a good deal for the ratepayers, and if the developer is willing to assume the risk and if the feds come back with their subsidies to make it viable, then it's something we can do. If the feds choose not to, then we won't do it. It's as simple as that."
Delegate Ron George, R-Anne Arundel, said he believes Maryland should wait and see how a prototype offshore wind turbine in Virginia performs -- at no cost to Maryland.
"It will test the economics of large-scale offshore wind projects like this. It will test the mechanics and construction issues related to it, and it will study the ability of offshore wind projects to withstand the weather conditions," George said.
The measure now goes to the Senate. It remains to be seen whether there is enough support to move the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, said Sen. Thomas Middleton, the committee chairman.
The governor and environmental activists are still counting votes and encouraging senators to support the measure. Amendments made in the House seem to have resolved some senators' concerns about the bill, Middleton said.
"I know they're working it, and my hope is at the end of the day they'll have everything so (they can) get the bill out of committee, get it on the floor and get it passed," Middleton said.
The Senate will have a little more than a week to do that. The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn April 9. Supporters are planning a rally Monday night in Annapolis, where they plan to circle the Maryland State House holding glow-in-the-dark miniature wind turbines.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said environmentalists have been lobbying the Senate since the start of the session.
"This bill sets the right framework," Tulkin said after the House vote on Friday. "It's a step in the right direction. It's a signal to business and investors that Maryland is serious about offshore wind."
Earlier in the day, proponents of the bill gathered in Annapolis to tout a new study commissioned by the advocacy group Environment Maryland, which suggests offshore wind could bring thousands of jobs to the state. Minority business leaders and Maryland NAACP conference president Gerald Stansbury praised language in the bill that would give minority-owned businesses opportunities to fill those positions.
"As minorities we are always at the end of the spectrum," Stansbury said. "Today I feel that this wind energy bill and the way it's written will put us at the front end when we start thinking about minority participation."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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