As I listened to Rick Meehan, the longtime mayor of Ocean City, talk about the many reasons he opposes wind turbines planned off — way off — the coast of his seaside resort town, I kept thinking about another mayor.

Larry Vaughn, presented with evidence of an environmental threat, famously put short-term profits over public safety.

“I’m only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars. Now, if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island.”

The danger at hand, of course, was an imaginary great white shark, and Vaughn the pretend mayor of a beach resort in the original summer blockbuster “Jaws.”

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Standing before a few thousand people on Saturday, Meehan took Vaughn’s role as he spoke during a two-hour display of disinformation on wind-generating turbines planned 16 miles off the Atlantic coast.

The hearing was organized by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress and a longtime opponent of harnessing the wind to reduce the carbon pollution destabilizing the climate.

Meehan followed a murderer’s row of wind critics — many with links to oil companies, some with dubious ideas about climate change and all suffering a bad case of myopia.

“Our future is at stake,” the mayor said. “God forbid that those turbines get built. The public is going to ask, ‘How did you let that happen?’”

It’s more likely, of course, that, god forbid, East Coast wind turbine complexes aren’t built the public will want to know, “How did you not get this done?”

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Saturday’s hearing was not a thoughtful examination of wind power. It was spit-in-the-wind politics by Harris and two fellow congressional Republicans from the Jersey Shore. Supporting players like Meehan gave their lines on cue — the mayor even referenced another 1970s summer blockbuster.

“The sunrise over those turbines is going to look like a backdrop from ‘Star Wars,’ ” Meehan said.

When I got to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, a penetrating wind made the 23-degree temperature feel like needle-sharp zero. Bundled-up protesters stood on the street corner, waiving signs attacking Harris.

Inside, civic groups opposed to wind farms were warm and cozy as they handed postcards to everyone coming through the door.

“These foreign wind energy companies that hold the leases are now indicating that the projects may no longer make economic sense,” Harris told the crowd. “And I expect they will be going back to the Public Service Commission or the state legislature to get more money for the projects. This money will have to come from taxpayers and from Maryland electric customers already facing sky-high electric bills.”

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Given Harris’ longtime contempt for wind energy and the wider Republican obsession with opposing it, I knew what I was getting into when I drove the two hours to my childhood hometown.

I was curious about the ill wind blowing in Ocean City because of something that didn’t happen in Annapolis. I hosted a discussion on sustainability last week as part of The Baltimore Banner’s first legislative preview. The first significant snow in years made the roads treacherous, and Paul Pinsky, executive director of the Maryland Energy Administration and a former leader of climate initiatives in the legislature, decided not to come.

I had wanted to ask him how we can get windmill projects off the Maryland-Delaware coast back on track.

“Look, every effort along the Atlantic Coast is facing headwinds,” Pinsky said Sunday. “You know, they finished that project off of New England, but nothing else is really moving.”

A few years ago, the East Coast looked as if it would be the gold rush of U.S. wind energy. It’s the best chance for the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast to break their reliance on oil and gas for electricity. European companies with decades of experience in the field were eager to get involved.

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But high interest rates and inflation convinced Ørstead, the Danish wind energy giant, to abandon its projects in New Jersey and pause in Maryland this fall. US Wind, a subsidiary of an Italian company, is waiting for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to approve an environmental impact statement for its plan but could easily make the same choice.

US Wind plans to build 121 turbines 18 miles offshore, plus substation platforms and underwater cables connecting to the grid through Delaware Seashore State Park. If all the potential projects off Maryland and Delaware are completed, it could power millions of homes.

The state granted licenses for these projects and, along with the federal government, is investing tens of millions of dollars to create a manufacturing base to support expansion along the East Coast. The plan to build a new energy industry in Maryland is focused on Tradepoint Atlantic, the former site of Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point in Baltimore.

Dominion Energy in Virginia, meanwhile, is building a ship to carry and install the tower sections and turbine blades for projects in that state and beyond. Even if everything goes right, 2026 is the earliest construction might start.

Will the companies ask for more financial help? It seems likely. But what do you expect when you are creating an industry from scratch? Ask the oil companies about their history of subsidies.

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“So, we have stuff moving,” Pinsky said. “It’s just things have slowed down.”

Maybe the idea Saturday was to throw so much confusion into the mix that it erodes widespread public support for renewable energy sources. Maybe it was just political theater for Harris, a popular figure in his district facing reelection this year.

Whatever the reason, he took his seat on the stage last weekend with fellow congressional wind skeptics Chris Smith and Jefferson Van Drew, a giant seal of the House of Representatives projected on a black curtain and their panel of cherry-picked experts.

Here’s the broad list of their objections: wasting taxpayers’ money, killing whales, putting commercial fishermen out of work, selling out to Chinese investors, messing with civilian and military radar, killing seaside tourism (ba-dum, ba-dum), ignoring the people who live along the Shore and providing hiding spaces for Russian submarines.

Are any of these valid? Even Harris admitted it didn’t matter.

“We’re just going to do a little beta testing off our coast, which is just incredible,” he said.

A few minutes online makes it easy to punch holes in the ideas expressed at the beach.

There’s no evidence that work on wind energy sites has anything to do with recent whale deaths. It’s more likely they’re connected to the effect of climate change on the Gulf Stream.

It’s also more likely that climate change will put commercial fishermen out of business rather than wind turbines. On the rare days that turbines would be visible off the coast, it’s hard to argue they’ll distract from the visual clutter along Ocean City’s 10 miles of paved-over beachfront.

And Meehan, the Ocean City mayor, well, he just wasn’t being truthful when he said there had been no local opportunity to comment on the plan. State and federal regulators each held a hearing there, and he testified at both.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan talks on Saturday, Jan. 20 about the impact of proposed wind turbines on the tourism business. Despite what the mayor said, the event at the Ocean City convention center was at least the third public forum on the plan.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan talks on Jan. 20 about the impact of proposed wind turbines on the tourism business. (Rick Hutzell)

Even the event was a misnomer, touted as a congressional hearing when it wasn’t part of any committee’s work.

“I think this is just rabble-rousing agitating before the election and to cast doubt, and obviously you appeal to some of the MAGA people,” Pinsky said.

The oddest thing Saturday was an almost total absence of the key phrase in this debate: climate change.

Travis Fisher, an energy policy spokesman for the conservative Cato Institute, did the honors. He cited a study of nuclear power plants that found them too expensive to be a realistic alternative to gas-fired generators.

Oh, he added, wind energy is pricey, too.

“There is simply no economic justification,” Fisher said.

Except, of course, that the planet is burning.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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