The Maryland Senate approved an amendment yesterday that environmentalists and the O'Malley administration say would significantly weaken a bill designed to reduce global warming pollution.
The Global Warming Solutions Act would require a 25 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from Maryland businesses by 2020. But under the amendment approved yesterday, the state's environmental agency would have to get the General Assembly's approval each time it issued rules to cut the pollution.
"The result is to weaken the Maryland Department of the Environment, and that is radically wrong," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the original bill.
The amendment was one of the measures being pushed by industry groups opposed to the bill. They have argued the legislation would put them out of business by mandating pollution cuts and fees not required in other states.
Environmental, public health and religious groups have endorsed the bill, saying Maryland needs to make itself a national leader in fighting greenhouse gas pollution.
Shari T. Wilson, the state environment secretary, said the amendment would undermine her agency's ability to implement air pollution control programs by requiring legislative approval before it could impose regulations.
"Right now, we have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," Wilson said. "We are viewing this as a rollback of our existing regulatory authority."
Montgomery County Del. Kumar P. Barve, who sponsored the bill in the House of Delegates, said he hopes to amend the legislation again in his chamber to make it easier for the Maryland Department of the Environment to impose necessary regulations.
Sen. Nathaniel Exum, a Prince George's Democrat, introduced the amendment, which was approved 27-20. It was supported by all 14 Republicans in the Senate as well as 13 Democrats from Baltimore City and elsewhere. A final vote by the Senate could come today or Monday, sending the measure to the House of Delegates.
Exum said greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are very different from the air pollution the state has regulated up to now, and he warned lawmakers not to give the environmental department too much leeway. He said the public is angry today about the legislature's 1999 vote to deregulate electric rates.
"This is a new venture we're heading into," Exum said. "We don't want to be caught as we were on electric restructuring."
Republicans, who have joined business groups in fighting the global warming bill, supported Exum. "We're walking into uncharted territory where this is headed," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the Republican leader. "And I do not trust turning it over to bureaucrats."
Mike Tidwell, a founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the amendment would so weaken the bill "it's almost as if you aren't passing any legislation."
"If you have to have the MDE coming back to the General Assembly every time they change a compact fluorescent light bulb, you are severely handicapping the agency from bringing to Maryland voters the solution the voters want," Tidwell said.
Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.