At a hearing Tuesday, the Howard County Council heard from residents, climate advocates, students and real estate agents advocating for and against two proposed bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in newly constructed buildings and public transportation in the county.
The two bills will be discussed by the council at a work session at 9:30 a.m., Monday. Voting on the proposed bills is scheduled for a Feb. 6 legislative session.
Both bills were introduced by Howard County Council member Christiana Rigby, whose proposed Clean New Buildings Climate Act would require county government to make recommendations for all-electric building standards for new construction and present them to the County Council at the end of the year, according to a county news release.
The bill would require the county’s Department of Inspections, Licenses & Permits to report to the council with recommendations on changes to the building code that would be needed to require all-electric buildings. It would also require the department to consider certain exemptions and setting a deadline.
Last year, the county developed a preliminary Climate Action and Resiliency Plan that states that buildings account for roughly 40% of Howard’s local greenhouse gas emissions, 11% directly from onsite fuel combustion in buildings. The plan states that Howard must move toward all-electric buildings by phasing out the use of fossil fuels in new construction.
The proposed legislation will not affect existing buildings in the county that rely on fossil fuels.
“I’ve been a resident of Howard County for over a decade, and I’ve seen the detrimental effects of climate change,” said Samuel Yoon, a sophomore at Glenelg High School. “When I first read about Ellicott City’s 2016 and 2018′s floods, I was shocked. It was not a coincidence that they were only two years apart.
"Greenhouse gases have raised global temperatures, and have created an imbalance in nature.
“I realize that climate change is like an infection,” he said. “By destroying the source we end the sickness. This is why I’m here supporting the Clean New Buildings Climate Act. Forty percent of Howard County’s greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings.”
Yoon said electrifying new infrastructure would help the county reach its net-zero goals.
“We can be a role model to other counties and show that we will never remain silent against climate change,” he said.
Carl Latkin, a representative of the Howard County Sierra Club and a 25-year resident of the county, also spoke in support of the bill.
“Climate change will have a massive harmful impact on our children and grandchildren’s financial, physical and mental health, which is one of the reasons I think you saw such a great turnout today from students around the county,” Latkin said.
“We must make climate change mitigation a top priority for Howard County,” he said. “I really applaud the leadership of the county for purchasing electric vehicles; however, the county must go much further and enact polices that are more meaningful, and explicitly more reductions in countywide greenhouse gas. Electrifying new buildings to reduce gas emissions is essential, impactful and highly feasible.”
Jonathan Wilson, deputy director of the National Center for Healthy Housing and a resident of Howard County, said he supports the bill. He spoke on the dangers of gas stoves and other gas appliances in homes.
“The evidence continues to grow that the use of gas stoves poses a serious risk to our health,” he said. “In addition to causing asthma, exposure to combustion gases from gas stoves and other vented gas appliances can trigger [an] asthma attack.”
Wilson said burning gas in homes also contributes to many pollutants.
“Homes with gas stoves routinely have nitrogen dioxide levels that are two to three times higher than homes built with electric,” he said. “Levels of nitrogen dioxide found in the homes with gas stoves can irritate air waves. This can result in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath.”
Opposition to the bill came from the building industry.
Issac Ambruso, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Maryland Building Industry Association, said the association recognizes the importance of addressing climate threats but believes the bill would undermine any coordinated attempt to address this issue and have a detrimental impact on industry efforts to combat climate change.
“Consumers want to have an option for gas appliances and heating,” he said. “Heating technology, such as a heat pump, while sufficient in a climate with very little relative temperature change during the year, do not work sufficiently in a Maryland climate without expensive, emergency heat during extreme cold like we experienced this December.”
Stepping up public transportation
Rigby’s proposed Transit Investment Act would create a dedicated fund for public transit operations in the county’s operating budget. The bill also would direct an estimated $500,000 to fixed-route transit operations annually.
Fixed-route transportation systems use buses, vans, light rail and other vehicles to operate on a predetermined route according to a predetermined schedule.
Howard’s preliminary Climate Action and Resiliency Plan states that the transportation sector accounts for about 55% of the local greenhouse gas emissions.
The proposed bill is also intended to improve and encourage more county residents to use the public transportation system. The county asserts that many residents do not use the bus because of limited routes and frequency of service.
Resident Liz Feighner spoke out in favor of more public transportation.
“Public transportation produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than single-occupancy vehicles, making public transportation an important tool in an effort to reduce emissions and combat climate change,” she said. “We need to improve public transportation, to become more reliable and convenient, so we can get people out of their cars to travel in and around Howard County.”
Ruth Auerbach, a member of the citizen activist group Howard County Indivisible, also spoke in favor of the transit bill.
“Improving the fixed-route transit service would provide many benefits,” Auerbach said. “We strongly support the bill’s intention in the preamble, and we respectively urge passage of this bill.”