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Renewed green emphasis scores successes for environmentalists

The Baltimore Sun

Color Gov. Martin O'Malley's first legislative session light green.

Environmentalists scored several key victories in the recently ended session. The Maryland General Assembly approved a law to clean up car exhaust that had been endorsed by the new Democratic governor. Lawmakers also voted for measures to tighten controls of storm-water runoff from developments, require power companies to buy some electricity from solar generators, protect diamondback terrapin and cut phosphates pollution in household dish detergent.

However, lawmakers did not approve the top priority of many concerned about the Chesapeake Bay: a proposal to impose more than $100 million a year in fees on developers for programs to reduce farm fertilizer runoff into the bay.

Other environmental measures that failed included a bill that would have required all businesses to cut emissions of global warming gases, and legislation that would have forced all new state buildings to meet energy-efficient "green" standards. It was dropped in favor of an advisory panel.

Still, the session reflected a renewed emphasis on environmental issues in Annapolis under the new Democratic governor. While former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed successfully for the "flush tax," which pays for upgrades to sewage treatment plants, he also fought tougher vehicle emission standards. O'Malley signaled in his State of the State address that pro-environmental measures would top his early agenda.

"It's a very good year for the environment," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland. "Those are very strong steps forward. Obviously, a lot more needs to be done, in terms of global warming. And the bay needs more than just storm-water controls."

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group, said the increased emphasis on environmental issues this year was part of a national trend. "I think it's part of all the national attention being given to energy and global warming," Fry said.

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor plans to sign several of the environmental bills on April 24.

During a tour of a "green" school in Germantown on Wednesday, O'Malley predicted that the "green fund" and green buildings proposals -- both of which he supported this year -- would succeed in future years.

"I don't think of those issues so much as stalled rather as not yet complete," O'Malley said at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School. "I think there's a lot of momentum behind those bills and those ideas, and I'm sure that their passage will one day happen, and I think it will happen soon."

Looming over the session was a clash between the state's promises to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and a lack of money. Maryland is facing a $1.5 billion shortfall next year, but it's also several years and hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting commitments to neighboring states to improve the bay's water quality by 2010.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said the environmental bills approved this session were a "mixed bag" that included some that were poorly written and will hurt consumers.

Pipkin said electricity rates will rise because of the new state mandate that power companies such as BGE buy 2 percent of their electricity from solar panel generators by the year 2020. He called this an expensive subsidy for the solar industry.

"It's a sweetheart deal at the expense of ratepayers," Pipkin said. "Last year, we had all this pain for ratepayers --and this year we have a bill that significantly increases costs to consumers."

The state's Public Service Commission, now controlled by O'Malley appointees, plans to look at ways to ease the impact of BGE's proposed 50 percent rate increase set to take effect June 1.

Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, praised the solar bill as an important step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"This is historic, a monumental achievement. ... We are very likely to see a huge explosion of solar rooftops in Maryland," Tidwell said.

By far the biggest victory of environmentalists this spring was in filtering car and truck exhaust. O'Malley teamed up with the Democratic leaders in both chambers to pass the Clean Cars bill, which had been opposed by Ehrlich, a Republican, and auto dealers.

The law will require a 30 percent cut in global warming gases from all new cars and trucks registered in Maryland within a decade, as well as a smaller reduction in smog-forming pollutants. Auto buyers are expected to pay about $1,000 more per vehicle as Maryland follows tighter regulations created by California and adopted by 10 other states.

"Some of the main causes of asthma and other respiratory disease in Maryland come from auto emissions, and so do some of the major pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay," said state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. "So that's two major hazards that we will be lessening somewhat."

In addition, the legislature approved a bill that will require tighter design standards on developers. This will force them to better control the runoff of storm water from parking lots and other blacktop into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to ban household dish detergents that contain more than 0.5 percent phosphates, which feed algae growth and low oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. Phosphates have been banned from laundry detergent since the 1980s.

The biggest disappointment for environmentalists this session was the failure to win approval for the proposed Chesapeake Bay Green Fund, which would have imposed fees on all new development projects in Maryland. The proposal aimed to raise more than $100 million to pay for buffer strips along streams and other programs to limit runoff of farm fertilizer pollution into waterways.

With the strong backing of Speaker Michael E. Busch, the House passed the bill, 96-41, on March 24. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and his allies in the Senate stymied it, arguing that lawmakers shouldn't approve any new revenue measures until they pass broader legislation -- including perhaps slot machines -- to close the state's budget gap.

Sponsors of the green fund eliminated anti-sprawl measures in the bill, taking away penalties for construction in rural areas. But that wasn't enough to advance the legislation, which was strongly opposed by developers.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her group will fight for the bay cleanup fund again next year. "Postponing bay restoration for another year is really a step backward, so we are disappointed," Coble said.

A bill that would have required all industries to cut their global warming gases by 25 percent by 2020 also failed. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County, wanted Maryland to follow California's example by creating a system that would penalize businesses that didn't bring their emissions of carbon dioxide back to 1990 levels.

The bill was "blocked" by the Senate president and his allies and was never allowed to get a vote in committee, Pinsky said. "People have talked about environmentalists only being allowed to get one big bill a year -- which is bad public policy, but it appears to be part of the formula," Pinsky said.

Miller said that the legislature deserves an "A plus" grade on environmental issues this session. But he added that the global warming bill would have been too expensive, and was opposed by the O'Malley administration and others.

With the state facing a major budget shortfall next year, Miller said the "green fund" will have to be considered along with potential tax increases and perhaps slot machines in a future session dedicated to closing the gap.

"It was a great environmental year," Miller said. "The problem for the 'green fund' is that we are going to need a special session to come together to move forward major bills to deal with the state's budget crisis."

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

Green legislation

Environmental bills passed by the 2007 General Assembly:

Clean cars - requires all new cars and trucks in Maryland to reduce their emissions of global warming gases and smog-forming pollutants starting in 2011.

Stormwater control - directs the Maryland Department of the Environment to impose more stringent requirements on developments for containing polluted runoff into steams.

Solar bill - requires power companies to purchase 2 percent of their electricity from solar generators by 2020.

Diamondback terrapin protection - outlaws commercial trapping of the state mascot.

Dish detergent bill - reduces the amount of polluting phosphates in household soap. Bills that failed:

The Chesapeake Bay Green Fund - would have raised more than $100 million a year by imposing fees on developers to pay for farm runoff pollution control programs.

Global-warming solutions - would have forced all businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Green buildings bills - would have required all new state projects to meet energy-efficiency standards, and provided millions for the construction of more efficient schools.

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