Maryland joined a multistate effort to reduce pollution contributing to global warming yesterday and will begin studies to find more ways to combat climate change and limit the threat rising sea levels pose to the state's 3,100 miles of shoreline.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who signed on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and issued an executive order creating the Maryland Commission on Climate Change yesterday at Sandy Point Park on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, said that in the absence of federal action to combat global warming, states must step up their efforts.
When fully phased in, RGGI will force a 10 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 10 Northeastern states, and O'Malley said that given the magnitude of the threat posed by global warming, that agreement must be only a starting point for Maryland.
"This is a real threat," he said. "Our children are very likely going to find the things we take for granted, the blue crab or the Baltimore oriole or even some of our islands, the very things that make us who we are, will be gone forever."
Maryland's participation in the RGGI agreement was mandated by the Clean Air Act, which the legislature passed and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed last year. Previously, Ehrlich had opposed the state's participation in the compact, saying it could decrease the reliability of the electric grid and drive up prices for consumers.
Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the Department of the Environment, said an economic impact study required by the Clean Air Act found that the agreement could reduce utility bills by establishing conservation programs.
"That should be a benefit to consumers as well as address global warming," she said.
Matthias Ruth, director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Environmental Research, who conducted the study, said the agreement will provide moderate environmental benefits and with little economic cost - and possibly economic gains from energy efficiency.
"Signing it has fairly modest direct impacts, but it is a major step forward nationally, and it will set the tone for the discussions on climate change, which I have no doubt will make a major difference," Ruth said.
The RGGI agreement creates the first "cap and trade" system in the United States to control emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary global warming gas. Starting in 2009, each state will be allocated a certain amount of carbon dioxide its power plants are allowed to emit (for Maryland, it's 37,503,983 million short tons a year). The states would then auction off the credits to electricity producers, who would be forced to stay below the caps or buy unused credits from cleaner power plants.
Beginning in 2015, the states' caps will be reduced by 2.5 percent a year for four years.
An economic analysis conducted by RGGI member states estimated that the cap and trade program could increase retail consumers electric bills by 0.3 percent to 3.2 percent in 2015, a difference of between $3 and $16 a year.
George S. Aburn Jr., air director for the state Department of the Environment, said the program could generate as much as $100 million a year for energy efficiency programs, such as installing "smart meters" in homes to help customers manage their power use or establishing incentive programs for people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
"The smartest and easiest way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to reduce demand," Aburn said.
Constellation Energy, the largest power producer in Maryland, has been involved in the development of RGGI and "looks forward to working with Maryland officials" to implement it, said company spokesman Robert L. Gould.
"Constellation ... would like to see it serve as a steppingstone to a uniform and comprehensive national program," Gould said.
Environmentalists stood with O'Malley yesterday to praise his efforts on global warming, and they encouraged him to go beyond the requirements of RGGI.
"Some governors are sitting back and waiting for others to take action, and others are stepping forward and exercising leadership," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group. "I'm glad the governor of Maryland is showing leadership."
In the year since the Clean Air Act passed, the scientific consensus about the existence and dangers of global warming has become much stronger, said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the act.
He said the state now needs to move toward an overall carbon emissions cap to cover pollution sources other than power plants, an idea he pursued unsuccessfully in this year's General Assembly session. "That clearly is the next step," he said. "It's going to affect our lives ... how we travel, where we go, what we do, but we have to act."
California and New Jersey have taken steps to limit and reduce total carbon emissions, and Maryland needs to do the same, Pinsky said.
Such a cap is one of the things the governor's climate change task force will be charged with studying. O'Malley said the commission will assess the impact of climate change on Maryland, develop strategies to reduce carbon emissions and find ways to reduce the state's vulnerability to rising sea levels.
Wilson, the environment secretary, said Maryland's geography with the bay and the many rivers that feed it makes it the third-most vulnerable state to rising sea levels, behind Louisiana and Florida. Sea levels in the state have risen by a foot in the past 100 years, she said.
Joshua Tulkin, the organizing director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the commission needs to act fast. He and others said they hope it makes recommendations in time for the General Assembly to take up a carbon cap in next year's legislative session.
"A study is important, but essentially we know were we need to go already," Tulkin said. "We need a statewide carbon cap, and the faster we get there, the better."
O'Malley said Marylanders will need to take difficult steps to protect the environment for the next generation, but that the task, while daunting, is not insurmountable.
"At the end of the day, one of the most hopeful comforts we have in facing this challenge is this truth: As our problems are man-made, so are the solutions," he said. "We have a need but of will."
Gov. Martin O'Malley joined nine other Northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative yesterday.
Caps Maryland's carbon dioxide emissions from power plants starting in 2009
Requires annual 2.5 percent reductions in emissions from 2015 to 2019
Will generate as much as $100 million a year for energy efficiency programs
Could increase consumer costs by $3 to $16 a year beginning in 2015