Legislative committee buries wind siting bill

A wind turbine at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown. — File photo by Steve Myrick

Less than two years after it won overwhelming passage in the House and Senate, a bill intended to streamline the permitting process for land-based wind turbines was buried in study Tuesday by a legislative committee, likely denying the Patrick administration a long-held priority in its effort to increase renewable energy production.

Rep. John Keenan, co-chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, also put the brakes on a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to add a 5-cent deposit to the cost of water, juice and sports drink bottles. Although Mr. Keenan said the bottle recycling proposal could reemerge later in the session as a standalone bill, he said the plan would not be included as part of the Legislature’s annual budget process.

The committee’s one-two punch, on the eve of the governor’s budget proposal, comes a day after Mr. Patrick stood before the Legislature and suggested they continue to take “politically tough” votes in support of his agenda, although the governor has been largely silent on the wind bill since it got hung up one Senate vote shy of his desk in the summer of 2010.

Wind bill supporters say it would speed up and streamline the process for land-based wind turbines while respecting the wishes of local residents. Opponents argue local control is stronger under current laws.

Mr. Keenan (D-Salem) and his co-chairman, Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), said their decision to relegate the wind siting bill to a study — a move that nearly always spells defeat for bills — was intended to give the committee more time to advance narrower legislation focused on the siting standards used for land-based wind projects.

“We remain committed to developing siting standard legislation, which is part of the bills that are before us right now. It is my commitment … that we move forward with that legislation out of this committee this session,” Mr. Downing said.

The bill was sent to study without objection from any of the 10 members on hand.

Richard Sullivan, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said he had accepted that the wind bill “is not going to pass in this session” and he intends to work with the committee to develop siting standards that could be included in a comprehensive siting reform next year.

“Clearly, we’re disappointed that it’s not going to pass in this session,” he said. “I will work, the administration will work closely with the chairmen as we look to define the parameters in terms of the standards for siting.”

Keenan noted that the committee had spent 16 hours gathering testimony from residents on Cape Cod and in the Berkshires — the regions with the greatest wind energy potential in Massachusetts — before coming to their decision.

“One of the things we heard about was the issue of standards. We need further study and further review to actually address some of the issues,” he said.

After the executive session, both chairmen referenced a recent Department of Environmental Protection/Department of Public Health report that concluded that land-based wind turbines, sited appropriately, present no ill health effects for local residents, despite protestation by groups of residents from Falmouth who say their quality of life has suffered.

“Neither of us are against renewable energy. We’re just trying to do it right and respect the communities where these projects are being built,” Mr. Keenan said.

“We take it seriously as our responsibility to determine what’s the best decision when it comes to, in this case, siting policy,” Mr. Downing added. “The broad consensus at this point is that the best step when it comes to siting policy is to develop the standards, to get the standards right so that you have projects that can have broad support.”