An ill wind

March 09, 2007

Blame it on frustration, say the folks trying to cut the public out of the review process for approving wind farms.

Too much regulation, too many delays, too much interference in the development of a renewable energy source every environmentalist claims to favor until those monster turbines threaten to show up in their backyard, or so the story goes.

Democracy and regulatory red tape can indeed be a tedious business. But that doesn't excuse a move under way in the General Assembly to exempt a politically well-connected wind power developer from a long-established review process that has imposed thoughtful limits on his project.

The proposal so thoroughly excludes citizen participation in reviewing this and future projects they wouldn't even get a public hearing.

Wind power may prove part of the answer to Maryland's energy needs, but successful turbine projects must be able to withstand thorough scrutiny by the Public Service Commission, with the expert advice of all relevant state agencies and the comments of any interested citizens.

A wind farm proposed for the top of Backbone Mountain in Garrett County by Annapolis-based Synergics Inc. went through such a process and after 2 1/2 years won approval last fall from the PSC - though it attached 24 conditions recommended by the state Department of Natural Resources mostly to protect the pristine habitat of local wildlife. The ruling is now under appeal by the developer, who thought the conditions too harsh, as well as by local citizens, who considered them too weak.

Meanwhile, Synergics President Wayne Rogers, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, has prevailed upon state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other prominent Democrats to sponsor legislation that would exempt wind projects from nearly all that red tape, giving them the same swift review applied to small generating stations that serve as emergency backup for hospitals or industrial parks and eliminating the need for public notice and hearings.

Thomas M. Middleton, a co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which will recommend action on it to the full Senate, acknowledged that "you can't do away with public hearings." But he said the current review process offers too many opportunities for opponents to delay a project to death. Maryland has committed to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, he said, yet none of several wind projects proposed for the state has been able to begin construction.

At the same time, those regulatory impediments may very well be protecting Maryland from blindly following the latest hot trend in energy only to find out the prize wasn't worth the cost. Any time citizen participation or regulatory review is called too onerous, rest assured that the process is working as it should.

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