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10 climate bills to watch in the Maryland General Assembly this session

Numerous environmental bills are working their way through Maryland’s legislature this session, as lawmakers tout the urgency of acting to slow climate change.

Here are 10 bills to watch:

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Climate Solutions Now Act

Bill numbers: SB414/HB583

Considered by many Maryland environmental groups to be a key priority for the 2021 General Assembly, this bill would require a greater reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the state than current law. It calls for a 60% decrease from 2006 levels, while current law calls for 40%.

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The bill, which has passed its Senate committee, also includes programs meant to help the state meet this goal.

It would require the state to plant 5 million trees in the next decade, with 10% going to underserved urban areas. The bill would also set new requirements for the state’s environmental justice commission.

Under this bill, at least one new school building constructed in each jurisdiction from 2022 to 2030 would have to meet net-zero energy requirements, with the state shouldering some of the cost. The bill would also require certain other newly constructed buildings to meet energy efficiency requirements and have 40% of their roof space available for solar panels.

During a hearing for the bill, the Maryland Association of Realtors urged caution in establishing mandates for commercial building projects during the pandemic.

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The state would also have to purchase exclusively zero-emission buses as of the 2023 fiscal year. Half the state’s light-duty-vehicle purchases would have to be zero-emission starting in the 2022 fiscal year, and by 2025 all of them would have to meet this standard.

The bill passed the Senate on March 12, and is in committee in the House.

Plastic Bag Reduction Act

Bill numbers: SB233/HB314

Starting on July 1, 2022, this bill would prohibit retail establishments from providing customers with plastic carryout bags. It wouldn’t include plastic bags used to package fruits, vegetables, meat, ice, newspapers, dry-cleaned clothes, live animals such as fish or prescription drugs.

Retailers could receive a fine up to $500 for violating the law, but only if they’re issued a written notice of violation and don’t fix the problem within three months.

The Maryland Retailers Association has spoken out against the bill.

“Due to the national paper bag shortage and other supply chain disruptions, bag costs have skyrocketed,” wrote association president Cailey Locklair in a statement. “Maryland’s plastic bag ban will impose massive financial burdens on retailers just as they try to recover from the economic crisis.”

This bill has passed the House, and is in committee in the Senate.

Coal Community Transition Act

Bill numbers: SB148/HB66

This bill codifies end dates for all Maryland coal-burning power plants and establishes a “Fossil Fuel Community Transition Fund” to provide grants to support displaced workers, coal communities and retraining programs.

Five of the six coal fired power plants in the state have already announced planned end dates for coal burning.

Bill sponsor Sen. Chris West withdrew this bill, according to a spokesman, over worries that it would not pass in the House.

The AFL-CIO had previously expressed opposition to the bill, equating it to “beating a dying horse.”

“Labor cannot support any bill by legislative decision that ends — terminates — a worker’s job,” said Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO.

The union is also concerned that the funding for the bill, drawn from the state’s Strategic Energy Investment Fund, may not be sufficient, Edwards said. Certain settlement agreements were providing millions of dollars to the fund, but those payments have since concluded.

Transit Safety and Investment Act

Bill numbers: SB199/HB114

In 2017, the largest share of Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions came from the roads, with cars causing the most damage. As such, some Maryland environmental groups are listing this bill among their priorities for the 2021 session.

It would require the governor to steadily increase the amount of money bound for the Maryland Transit Administration from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund over the next 10 years. It would fund improvements and maintenance for MARC trains, light rail lines and certain bus fleets.

It’s meant to meet needs highlighted by the administration in a July 2019 report, which found that it would need $462 million per year for repairs during the next decade. By 2028, this bill would increase spending to more than $500 million.

A similar bill passed the House in 2020 but did not receive a vote in the Senate. This year’s iteration is in committee.

Consideration of Climate and Labor

Bill numbers: SB83/HB298

This bill would require the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates gas, electric, telephone, water and sewage disposal companies, to specifically consider climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when it evaluates utility plans.

It rose out of a statement issued by the commission in 2019, as it was authorizing the Charles P. Crane coal power plant to reopen, this time fueled by natural gas.

Officials wrote that state law “does not require any consideration of how climate change impacts that generally affect Maryland may potentially affect” projects under consideration.

The bill would also require power companies to submit information about worker wages and benefits to the commission.

In a statement, commission chair Jason Stanek said the PSC “lacks the necessary technical and scientific expertise” to evaluate the effects of climate change on proposed projects, and would need to rely on the Maryland Department of the Environment or Department of Natural Resources or hire additional employees. In addition, the commission is already required to consider environmental impacts more generally, Stanek said.

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This bill passed the Senate on Feb. 24. It’s in committee in the House.

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Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard - Qualifying Biomass

Bill numbers: SB65/HB875

This bill would remove “black liquor” from the state’s subsidized renewable energy portfolio. Black liquor is the waste that’s left behind as part of the papermaking process, and it can be burned for energy, but it also releases pollutants.

The American Forest and Paper Association has spoken out against the bill.

“It is a good use of biomass energy that would otherwise go to waste,” said Jerry Schwartz, senior director with the association.

Environmental groups have long sought to remove trash incineration from the list as well, but that effort may be troubled after an amendment to that effect received a frosty reception in the Senate.

Black liquor is a mix of chemicals and wood waste left over from the papermaking process. Maryland legislators have declared burning black liquor a “renewable” energy source, but, according to some environmental advocates, burning black liquor isn’t clean.

The bill passed the Senate without that amendment Feb. 9. It’s in committee in the House.

Clean and Renewable Energy Standard (CARES) Act

Bill number: HB1362

This climate bill, backed by Gov. Larry Hogan and first introduced last year, would maintain a requirement that the state get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and 100% by 2040. Notably, it would bring nuclear energy into the fold of “renewable” sources. Nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, but environmental groups have expressed concern about safety and proper waste disposal.

It would also stop allowing renewable energy incentives for trash incineration and black liquor.

The plan would also create a new credit system exclusively for Maryland-based plants that generate electricity through nuclear power, combined heat and power, natural gas or burning biomass, such as wood or manure.

This bill, introduced Feb. 25, is in committee.

Environment and Natural Resources — Complaints, Inspections, and Enforcement

Bill numbers: SB324/HB204

This bill would require the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources to report more uniformly about air and water pollution complaints they receive, investigations they conduct and violations they find.

It would require MDE, for instance, to develop online lists and then update them on at least a monthly basis.

During a General Assembly hearing about the bill, Doug Myers of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the lists could help them track the outcome of complaints they share with the department.

The foundation often gets calls from concerned citizens who don’t know how to report potential environmental violations, Myers said. CBF reports the issues, but often must make public information requests to learn about the outcomes.

“MDE is in strong support of increased transparency,” said Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, “and is working closely with bill sponsors to make clarifications to ensure a positive impact and help advance the progress MDE has made over the last year.”

Analysts initially said the bill could require $300,000 in additional spending next fiscal year and $200,000 annually thereafter.

This bill passed the Senate, and is in committee in the House.

FUTURE Act

Bill numbers: SB835/HB803

This bill creates a timeline for public higher education institutions in Maryland to reach carbon neutrality. It separates emissions from colleges into three categories: direct emissions from things like campus power plants and school-owned vehicles, indirect emissions associated with purchases made by the school, and “induced” emissions from things like travel associated with university business and commutes to the school’s campus by students and staff.

Under the bill, public colleges and universities would need to be carbon neutral in the first two categories by Jan. 1 2025, and for the third category by 2035. To reach the goal, schools could transition their vehicles to electric, and power their buildings with renewable energy, or purchase carbon offsets, for instance.

The University System of Maryland, which runs a number of public universities in the state, including the University of Maryland, has asked legislators to consider changing the timeline.

“The USM is confident the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 can be achieved, given a moderate enhancement of current resources. Accelerating the target dates for “net zero” emissions to 2025 and to 2035 in certain categories could require a significant shift in resources, potentially resulting in major impacts on state operating support and changes in campus funding priorities,” wrote spokesman Mike Lurie in a statement.

This bill is in committee.

Attorney General Climate Change Actions

Bill number: HB1078

This bill would authorize the Maryland Attorney General to investigate or prosecute corporations that have contributed to climate change. It would allow the state to take similar action as Baltimore City and Annapolis, both of which have sued a series of fossil fuel companies for deceiving the public about the impacts of climate change.

Baltimore’s case was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, over whether it ought to be considered in federal or state court.

This bill is in committee.

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