Green bills languish in Annapolis

With just a few days left in Maryland's legislative session, a number of environmental bills appear to be languishing in Annapolis, prompting activists to worry that time may be running out to get them passed.

Two of Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislative priorities - to raise funds for Chesapeake Bay cleanup and to promote development of offshore wind projects - have passed the House but have yet to be acted on by their respective Senate committees. 

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said Wednesday evening that the inability of House and Senate leaders to agree on the budget is holding up action on O'Malley's bill to double the so-called "flush fee."

"That comes with the budget," said Conway, a Baltimore city Democrat.  "It's a bargaining tool."

A separate bill that would require Baltimore city and the state's largest counties to levy fees on property owners for storm-water pollution control projects also apparently is caught in Conway's committee by the budget impasse.

Activists say they're worried as well that O'Malley's bill to provide economic incentives for offshore wind may die for a second straight year in the Senate Finance Committee. The measure is reportedly one vote short of the needed majority.

Democrats normally strong for environmental causes are divided on offshore wind, with some African-American lawmakers reluctant to vote for anything that might raise energy bills of poor households.  The administration has trimmed the proposed subsidy for turbines to no more than $1.50 a month, while  offering to set up a $10 million fund to help small and minority-owned businesses get a piece of a project expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"If the Senate Finance Committee doesn't pass this bill, tens of millions of dollars for minority businesses are going to be left on the table," said Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Bills that would raise funds for studying and dealing with the impacts of natural gas development in western Maryland also appear to be stuck in the Senate after winning House passage.  Conway said two separate bills related to drilling for gas in Marcellus shale deposits are hung up by a dispute over levying a severance tax on any gas extracted. 

The House voted to levy a 7.5 percent state tax, but western Maryland lawmakers want to limit it to 2.5 percent.  The state has yet to approve any Marcellus shale drilling, as it conducts a three-year study of potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique used in extracting shale gas.

A proposed fee on leases held by gas companies, which state officials say is needed to finish studying the impacts of fracturing, has been tied up with the tax measure, Conway said.  However, she said she would bring to a vote a third measure, which strengthens legal protections for landowners if they believe their wells or streams are polluted by shale gas drilling.

One O'Malley environmental measure, which seeks to restrict rural development on septic systems, is moving, albeit substantially weakened to overcome objections from local governments. The House on Thursday gave preliminary approval to the bill after making minor amendments to a compromise version passed by the Senate.

Activists, local government and builders' representatives alike say the measure still appears likely to reduce large-scale septic housing development, even though the weakened bill leaves the planning decisions solely in the hands of local officials.

"It still significantly limits growth in our rural areas - not as much as it needs to, but significantly," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

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