Environmentalists flocked to Annapolis Tuesday to push their green agenda, encouraged by predictions that offshore wind legislation would pass this year while one legislative leader warned that other ambitious measures may take a little longer.
An estimated 400 people from across Maryland crowded into a meeting room in the Senate office building for the annual environmental legislative summit, where they got pep talks from Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders about a green agenda this year that's generally less sweeping than last year's.
The summit, bringing together 29 green groups, honored O'Malley for his efforts to persuade other East Coast governors to support a cutback in the commercial catch of menhaden, a small forage fish some call "the most important fish in the sea" because it is a food source for many other fish and wildlife. Amid warnings that the fish was in serious trouble, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently ordered a 20 percent reduction in the harvest, the first-ever coastwide limit.
"We have actually made a lot of progress in these years," O'Malley told the group, "and we can't let up."
He said there have been encouraging signs of Chesapeake Bay recovery accomplished through state action, such as the rebound of the blue crab population. But while his administration is "hitting our benchmarks" on some environmental goals, O'Malley said on others, "particularly energy, we're falling short."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller cheered the activists by predicting that one of the governor's energy priorities, offshore wind legislation, would pass this year in Annapolis, after failing the past two.
"This year we're going to get the wind power bill through," Miller vowed. The governor's measure would have utilty ratepayers pay up to $1.50 a month to subsidize construction of up to 40 industrial-scale wind turbines off Ocean City.
Other green legislative priorities include: a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for natural gas in Western Maryland until studies under way are completed; a bill requiring reporting of pesticide use statewide so their health impacts can be studied; and a pair of measures aimed at reducing litter from plastic merchandise bags as well as beverage bottles and cans.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a co-sponsor of the "bottle bill," as the beverage container deposit measure is called, suggested it may take "a year or two," but she vowed to push the bill along with a measure to impose a nickel fee on throwaway bags. The bag fee bill has failed to pass in previous years, but McIntosh said both bills would fit in well with a "zero-waste" state policy she predicted O'Malley would develop by next year to divert reusable material from landfills or use it to generate energy.
McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Environmental Matters Committee, said one of her more important roles this year would be to "play defense" to block bills she said are aimed at repealing or weakening sweeping environmental legislation passed last year. Measures have been introduced to repeal new state limits on large-scale housing development using septic systems, and to exempt some jurisdictions from a new law requiring they impose a fee on property owners to pay for controlling polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, another Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of her chamber's committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs, suggested she would try to push in the other direction, closing loopholes in the legislation and pressing local governments that are dragging their feet on complying with the law.
"We need to be a lot greener," she said. "A carrot may be better, but I like the stick.