Md. has head start in meeting controversial federal climate rules

Maryland has head start in meeting Obama "Clean Power" rules, though they still stir debate.

With its initiatives to curb climate-altering power plant emissions and to promote renewable energy, Maryland has a head start in complying with the Clean Power Plan that President Barack Obama unveiled Monday, federal and state officials said.

Obama's plan drew praise from Maryland's Democratic members of Congress and from environmentalists, who said federal action on power plant emissions to address climate change is long overdue.

But Republican lawmakers and the coal industry took a dim view, warning that consumers could wind up paying more for power and that hundreds of miners in Western Maryland could lose jobs.

The Hogan administration's top environmental official was noncommittal stance on the federal regulations, while saying Maryland has made "significant progress" on its own and with other states in reducing climate-altering pollution.

The new power plant rules, released after two years of study and debate, are expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nationwide by 32 percent over the next 15 years while boosting the share of power produced by wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy from 12 percent to 21 percent.

Fossil fuel‐fired power plants are the biggest source of climate-altering carbon dioxide, making up nearly a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

"We think that these goals are realistic for all the states," Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for air, said in a telephone briefing with reporters.

Since the agency proposed the power plant limits 14 months ago, she said, officials mulled over more than 4 million comments and tweaked the plan to give states and utilities more flexibility to figure out the least costly and least disruptive way to reduce carbon pollution while maintaining the reliability of the electric power grid.

States are required to submit plans next year, but the EPA may grant a two-year deferral if a state argues it needs more time. If a state refuses to submit a plan, or submits a plan that EPA finds is unworkable, the federal government will impose its own carbon-reduction program.

With several states and industries already objecting to the EPA plan, it is sure to be challenged in court. Robert Percival, a professor of environmental law at the University of Maryland, said it appeared that EPA had tweaked its rule to make it more legally defensible, giving states another two years — until 2022 — to begin mandatory emission reductions, and by dropping requirements for achieving energy efficiency.

For Maryland, the new federal requirements might not be much of an adjustment, at least at first. The state is committed under a 2009 state law to reduce climate-altering pollution to 75 percent of 2006 levels by 2020.

According to the White House, Maryland has reduced its power plant carbon pollution 35 percent since 2008, largely through a compact it joined with eight Northeast states to make electricity generators bid for the right to continue emitting carbon.

The auctions of those carbon "credits" by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative have yielded more than $200 million for the state since 2012, with the proceeds providing grants and other incentives for installing solar panels, buying more efficient appliances and helping the poor pay their utility bills, among other things.

EPA says it wants to encourage such carbon trading among states.

Maryland also has indirectly curbed carbon emissions by offering utility customers rebates and other incentives to reduce per capita electricity consumption 15 percent since 2007. And like many other states, Maryland has set a goal to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, with at least 2 percent from the sun.

"Maryland's done enough over the last decade that the state essentially doesn't have to do much to conform to the Clean Power Plan," said Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. But he noted that Maryland lawmakers must renew their commitment next year to the state's greenhouse gas reduction plan, and he predicted that Obama's action would make climate change an issue in next year's elections.

Several Democratic members of Maryland's congressional delegation hailed the administration's move.

Sen. Ben Cardin called the regulations "strong but flexible and fair." He said they should be especially welcome in Maryland, where 70 percent of residents live in coastal zones. And he said curbing carbon emissions should also yield reductions in other forms of pollution, which should make the air safer to breathe and help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA says its rule should produce a 72 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides, another power plant pollutant that contributes to smog, which threatens the health of millions in Maryland and elsewhere. The nitrogen emissions fall from the sky, and when washed into the bay by rainfall help feed the algae blooms that cloud the water and rob it of oxygen for fish and crabs.

Rep. Andy Harris, the state's lone Republican in Congress, predicted EPA's action would raise energy costs and hurt "hardworking Marylanders who are already struggling to pay their electric bills."

He warned higher energy costs would drive jobs overseas and hurt the U.S economy. Sen. George Edwards, a Republican state lawmaker who represents Western Maryland, echoed Harris' view that electricity rates will go up.

The EPA says people should see their electric bills decline, so that by 2030 the average family is saving about $7 a month.

A spokesman for Exelon, which owns Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said the Chicago-based energy giant is reviewing the regulations.

Maryland's "dwindling" mining industry fears the rules spell its demise, as utilities shift power generation to other fuels, said Adrienne Ottaviani, executive director of the Maryland Coal Association.

There are only about 10 mining companies still operating in Western Maryland, Ottaviani said, with around 500 employees. Nearly all are what she called mom-and-pop operations that have been struggling to survive in difficult economic conditions, as reduced energy consumption curtails demand for coal. She repeated a long-held industry view that Obama has been committed to eliminating their livelihood.

"I think this may be the nail in the coffin for Maryland companies," she said.

The Hogan administration withheld judgment, for now. Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said state officials are reviewing the rule to assess its effect on people, communities and the business climate.

Grumbles said the Hogan administration supports "balanced and practical environmental regulations that ensure affordable and reliable energy supplies for current and future Marylanders."

But he added that "the good news is Maryland is well-positioned to be a leader among states" in transitioning to a less carbon-intense economy, through initiatives the state has taken on its own and in concert with other states.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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