Democratic state lawmakers are butting heads again with the Republican Hogan administration, this time over its move to soften smog curbs originally ordered by former Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Leaders of a key legislative committee placed a temporary hold on a Hogan administration regulation that they contend weakens requirements for the state's coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of smog-forming pollution.
The move is the latest in a running skirmish between Democratic lawmakers and Hogan over the issue, which first flared shortly after he took office.
In a letter to Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles, the committee leaders wrote that an analysis of the administration's proposal finds it will be less protective of Marylanders' health than the rule signed off on by O'Malley.
"We're now asking the (Maryland Department of the Environment) to respond," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.
The lawmakers' move drew praise from the Sierra Club, which has accused the Hogan administration of weakening smog protections at the behest of NRG, a New Jersey-based energy company that has two coal plants on the outskirts of Washington that would be affected.
Grumbles issued a statement Tuesday defending the new rule, without specifically responding to the critical analysis cited by the lawmakers.
"We stand behind the smog reduction rule and the greater benefits it provides to Marylanders," Grumbles said. "The science is strong and so is our commitment to finalize this balanced regulation as soon as possible."
But Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark struck a more combative tone, criticizing "a small group of obstructionists" while pointing out that the administration's regulation has the support of a labor union as well as of NRG.
"Extremism and divisiveness won't make the air in Maryland any cleaner," Clark said, "but the administration's proposed regulations will."
The original rule, approved in the final days of the O'Malley administration, aimed to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-burning plants on hot summer days, when smog — and electricity generation — are both at their highest levels. It would have given four plants — two each in the Baltimore and Washington areas — until 2020 to install costly new pollution controls, switch to burning cleaner natural gas or shut down.
Pennsylvania-based Talen Energy, owner of the C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner plants in Baltimore, agreed to the O'Malley rule, though it has since announced it is selling Crane to another company.
But New Jersey-based energy company NRG said the requirements were too stringent and unnecessary, warning it would shutter its Dickerson and Chalk Point plants and lay off hundreds.
Hogan pulled the O'Malley rule within hours of taking office and directed regulators to take another look in light of NRG's complaints.
The new rule, formally proposed in September, would give power plants more flexibility in deciding how to meet smog limits. Companies like NRG with several plants could average emissions from facilities with state-of-the-art pollution controls along with those from older facilities lacking similar equipment. Grumbles has said the health protections of the new rule would be "equal to or greater than those in the previously proposed regulations."
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents the at-risk NRG workers, praised the Hogan rule.
But a review by Bruce Buckheit, a former air pollution enforcement chief with the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that it "requires minimal, if any, additional overall emissions reductions" beyond those already achieved.
Buckheit's review was commissioned by the legislative committee, but David Smedick, the Sierra Club's Maryland campaigner, acknowledged that the club recommended him and that Buckheit has done paid consulting work on other air pollution issues. Smedick said the Sierra Club did not pay for this analysis.
Sierra and the Chesapeake chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility have sued the Hogan administration seeking to have the O'Malley regulation reinstated. Smedick said activists hope that, "over the next few weeks and months, we can work with the administration to clean up our air to protect the health of Marylanders throughout the state."
By law, the legislative panel can't permanently block the regulation, but can delay its adoption at least until the beginning of the year — shortly before the General Assembly convenes in Annapolis
"We could do something during the session," Rosenberg said, "but nothing more now."
Some Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have written the O'Malley smog curbs into law, but it failed to get out of committee. Rosenberg and the panel's other co-chairman, Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat, also have asked for all correspondence the department received after proposing the new rule.
The friction over fighting smog comes less than a week after Democratic lawmakers and Hogan administration officials joined in the unanimous recommendation of a state commission to seek deeper cuts in Maryland's emissions of climate-altering carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases.
Earlier this year, Hogan also averted a looming clash with environmentalists over a significant source of the nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay. After vowing during last year's election campaign to block or revoke an O'Malley regulation that would have severely restricted farmers' ability to fertilize their crops with poultry manure, Hogan pulled the rule only to later re-propose the curbs, though with a somewhat longer timeline for compliance.
Smog, or ozone, has proven contentious nationally, as business and industry have challenged a decision by the EPA to tighten limits on what level is considered safe to breathe in the air. Ozone levels in Maryland have improved considerably since the 1990s, when the Baltimore area had the worst smog in the eastern United States. But it remains bad enough at times in summer to pose health risks for vulnerable people, including children, the elderly and those with respiratory problems.