A sweeping piece of climate change legislation that would push the state to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels is headed Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk — in time for Democratic General Assembly leaders to override a veto that the Republican executive has hinted may be coming.
The bill sets a 2031 target for the state to reduce its carbon footprint to 60% below 2006 levels, make the state carbon neutral by 2045 and require owners of large buildings to take steps to significantly reduce or offset use of fossil fuels by 2030. It also invests in youth conservation work and creates a “green bank” to help fund clean energy projects around the state.
Despite its breadth, the legislation fell short of the transformational changes that environmental activists and a liberal wing of Democrats had proposed initially and pushed for. The debate laid bare a gap between those pushing for an immediate and dramatic move to curtail use of fossil fuels and those concerned that the state’s energy grid isn’t ready for such a step.
“It’s an important step forward,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor. “It is not the bold step forward I had hoped.”
The bill received final legislative approval Thursday morning after the state Senate accepted a version of the bill the House approved Tuesday.
Once lawmakers formally present the bill to the governor, expected to happen Friday, he has six days to decide whether to veto the bill; the General Assembly will adjourn the final session of its four-year term April 11.
The legislation faced some of the same snares that derailed a similar proposal a year ago. Democrats in the House and Senate disagreed on the timing and scope of some measures.
For example, the 2031 emissions reduction target is a compromise halfway between Senate and House proposals. The bill also requires most buildings of at least 35,000 square feet to reduce their carbon footprints by 20% by 2030, slightly smaller reductions in fewer buildings than an earlier version of the legislation called for but also over a quicker timeline.
Members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, including Pinsky, its chairman, expressed frustration that delegates approved major changes to the bill with little time reserved for compromise in a conference committee.
“This feels very much like extortion,” said Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat.
Although she suggested a preference toward compromise, that would have carried risk: “If they don’t agree to a conference committee, we could lose the entire bill.”
Seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2021 legislative session — when lawmakers failed to iron out differences between House and Senate amendments in a conference committee — senators reluctantly agreed to accept the House’s final version of the bill. The legislation is the top priority of many environmental groups, whose support Democrats need in statewide elections later this year.
Leaders of the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers said that final version of the bill fell short of some goals but still represented a meaningful push away from fossil fuel dependence.
That included a study the House proposed to explore whether electric infrastructure upgrades would be needed to support a push to expand the grid and reduce dependence on natural gas. The bill would require the Public Service Commission to produce such a report by September 2023, in time for legislation to be crafted for the 2024 General Assembly session, Del. Kumar Barve said.
Concerns about the grid’s ability to handle such a shift prompted the Senate to remove what had been the most dramatic piece of the legislation, requiring all new buildings in the state to rely solely on electricity to meet space and water heating demands. But delegates added the grid study provision to at least guide the state toward further discussion on the issue, said Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.
“We’re going to find we have tremendous capacity to electrify,” Barve predicted.
Environmental groups said the legislation is a positive step toward reducing carbon emissions in the state and one that will help push other states and communities to take similar actions. But they added that lawmakers will have to take more policy action to make sure the state actually meets greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals.
“We see this as a commitment, a down payment on the policies to come,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “We are committed to helping them get there.”
The legislation advanced without support from Republicans, who spent three hours Thursday floating amendments on the House floor that Democrats repeatedly dismissed.
They warned that the legislation would raise energy costs for struggling families and lead to brownouts and blackouts like those that have occurred in California, a leader in clean energy. California officials say recent blackouts were the product of extreme heat, which is made more likely by climate change, and poor grid planning.
“The bill’s literally a takeover of the economy,” said Del. Mark Fisher, a Calvert County Republican. “It’s kind of obvious.”
Nonpartisan legislative analysts have said the legislation does carry significant costs that are impossible to pinpoint right now, but that it also could lead to significant energy savings.
Del. Richard Impallaria, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, suggested that although it might appear Chesapeake Bay waters are rising, it’s only because the land is sinking.
Research has documented that the Delmarva Peninsula is indeed sinking, yet rising global average temperatures and melting glaciers account for most of the foot of sea level rise scientists have observed in the bay over the past century.
“I don’t believe in global warming,” Impallaria said.
House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County thanked Republicans for their input before the chamber voted 95-42 in favor of the climate bill.
“Climate change is real. It is a crisis,” Luedtke said. “We have an obligation to act. This bill is our action.”