When Maryland signed on to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and began auctioning carbon credits to power plant owners, the state legislature agreed that the proceeds would be used primarily to promote conservation and the development of alternative energy. But because of this year's budget crunch, Gov. Martin O'Malley has another purpose in mind - powering up the fund that assists people who can't afford to heat their homes.
The governor has asked the General Assembly to approve a diversion of up to 50 percent of RGGI revenue - an estimated $70 million more than what is scheduled to be set aside - for energy assistance to the poor over the next two years. While electricity rate relief is permitted under the 10-state agreement, it would seem to defeat the purpose of diminishing Maryland's carbon footprint and addressing climate change.
Granted, rising utility costs in the midst of a national economic recession have greatly increased the need for energy assistance to low-income families. This year, however, the federal government is picking up most of the program's tab.
It's also true that a shortfall on the energy conservation side might not be felt particularly hard since the federal economic stimulus spending package is providing about $57 million to Maryland for green energy projects over the next 18 months.
We support the energy assistance program but not at the expense of the state's nascent green energy efforts. The purpose of the stimulus money is not to free RGGI funds but to expand the existing conservation and alternative energy programs.
Allowing a diversion of 50 percent of auction proceeds is too much. Better for the same money to be used to assist those same low-income households with energy audits, weatherization, insulation and other conservation projects that would save families in the long term.
Two years ago, Mr. O'Malley was a vocal critic of the previous administration for dipping into the state's land conservation program to balance the budget. Dipping into RGGI money for some purpose other than reducing carbon emissions amounts to the same thing. Maryland ought to make provisions for energy assistance in case Congress fails to fund the program at this year's level, but not at the cost of vital energy conservation projects.