Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has committed to reducing output of greenhouse gases dramatically, but a plan outlining how to accomplish that is late and, critics say, inadequate.
The plan — required under state law by the end of 2018 — has yet to be released. But rough details the administration has put forth suggest its approach to combating climate change will rely on unproven technologies such as capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground. It assumes development of small-scale nuclear power plants, though there currently aren’t plans for any in Maryland.
It calls for expanding highways but not building new mass transit projects, and predicts the state will remain dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come.
Some advocates and lawmakers are questioning whether the state is doing enough to assess and counter climate change impacts — and whether its initiatives will be adequate to turn back rising seas and temperatures.
While President Donald Trump’s administration abandons or rolls back climate-related programs, both Hogan and his critics say the state must step up. For instance, after the president abandoned the Paris climate accord two years ago, Hogan joined a bipartisan group of governors professing support for the analysis and its goals.
Critics say the administration isn’t doing nearly enough. "There’s talk, and there’s action, and I see very little action, let alone any vision,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “These kinds of solutions don’t just appear. You have to be intentional about them.”
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles acknowledged the criticism, but said the administration is striving for an approach that takes steps to address the problem while also promoting economic growth in the state. That is required under the 2016 law that established the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2006 levels by 2030.
Grumbles called the administration’s plan “balanced and achievable, taking affordability into account. ...
“There’s nothing extreme about any aspect of this proposal,” he said.
But with scientists across the globe warning that governments need to accelerate climate-focused interventions, environmental advocates say bolder steps are necessary.
“This is an extreme threat,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “I do not think Governor Hogan is serious when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions equal to what science tells us we need. I don’t think he has a serious record of supporting that.”
The administration says its plan would more than achieve the 40% emissions reduction goal on time, and that the state is already on track toward a goal to reduce emissions by 25% by next year.
Officials say they also have an eye toward an 80% reduction by 2050, though they do not project their plan will achieve that target.
A list of programs officials have described to meet the goals includes:
- Investments in zero-emission buses and support for increased use of electric cars.
- Efforts to promote tree planting and farming strategies that store carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
- Initiatives to promote energy efficiency, including encouragement of “compact” development, installation of heat pump systems and continued offers of household appliance rebates.
- Participation in a proposed interstate agreement that would place caps on transportation-related emissions across the Northeast.
But the administration’s outline of investments to reduce transportation-related pollution does not include any new transit projects — an area for which Hogan has been criticized since the governor vetoed the planned Red Line project in Baltimore in 2015.
The outline also calls for a controversial Hogan proposal to widen Washington-area highways, which the administration has asserted would reduce pollution by clearing up traffic congestion. Critics say those projects would invite more people to drive instead of searching for a cleaner alternative.
In an interview, Grumbles acknowledged that the highway projects could, in effect, put more cars on the road and increase emissions, depending on factors including the vehicles’ speed and the rate of adoption of electric cars. But he said any increase in emissions "can be managed as part of a balanced approach.”
The plan also relies on a law that took effect this year without Hogan’s signature mandating that 50% of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030. And it assumes adoption of a renewable energy plan Hogan announced in May and expects to formally propose in next year’s General Assembly session. The “Clean and Renewable Energy Standard” is expected to include pushes for what Grumbles called “small-scale, modular” nuclear power generation. It also calls for use of technology which some scientists hope could capture carbon emissions and deposit them within rock underground.
Critics say the climate plan doesn’t appear aggressive enough to make a difference within what scientists say is a vanishing window during which there is still time to slow or prevent climate change.
Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that without dramatic action, global warming will dramatically accelerate weather hazards such as floods and heat waves, and cause mass global disruptions and death. And they say an immediate shift away from fossil fuels is needed to prevent those threats.
David Smedick, campaign and policy director for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned why the plan appears to rely so heavily on technologies that don’t exist yet, while neglecting to expand as much as possible on those already in use. He called the state’s predicted increases in solar and offshore wind energy “relatively minimal,” its transit investment lacking, and its reliance on natural gas “very worrisome.” While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, its production also contributes to global warming when it leaks into the atmosphere as it’s being extracted from underground or transported via pipelines.
“We have technologies we know can help solve the problem,” Smedick said. "Let’s really focus on that while we’re dealing with the climate crisis we’re in.”
Several Democratic state lawmakers who focus on environmental issues said they were not familiar with the administration’s climate change proposals, but suggested they would be amenable to some of the ideas. Del. Kumar Barve of Montgomery County said he would support exploration of new nuclear generation, though he questioned whether it would be too expensive to be realistic. Del. Dana Stein of Baltimore County said he hoped to see an emphasis on “healthy” soils and reforestation to naturally store carbon.
But some advocates say other states have made stronger commitments that Maryland could model. New York last month pledged to achieve a zero-carbon economy by 2050. Six states have already adopted 100% renewable energy goals.
The Hogan administration is not the first to miss a deadline on state greenhouse gas reduction plans. A 2009 law required former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office to adopt its plan by the end of 2012. The Democratic administration released its draft plan in March 2012 but did not adopt a final version until July 2013.
Hogan administration officials say they are taking up a weighty mantle responsibly and thoughtfully.
“There needs to be leadership,” Grumbles said. “If it’s not happening at the federal level, it needs to happen at the state level.”