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Proposals to purify, expand Maryland's renewable energy supply fail

A paper mill in the Allegany County town of Luke receives millions of dollars in subsidies from Maryland ratepayers through a renewable energy incentive program.
A paper mill in the Allegany County town of Luke receives millions of dollars in subsidies from Maryland ratepayers through a renewable energy incentive program.(Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Environmentalists presented the Maryland General Assembly with two options this year: Double the state’s renewable energy requirement to supplying half of the electricity Marylanders use, or go even further and aim to eliminate all dependence on fossil fuels.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates chose an unspoken third option: Do nothing.

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They rejected both clean energy proposals on Wednesday, citing concerns about ratepayer costs and a need for more information on the environmental impact of the current state policy that requires that 25 percent of Maryland’s power supply come from renewable sources.

A Baltimore Sun series in December revealed that the incentive program to encourage clean, renewable energy channels millions of dollars every year from Maryland utility customers to facilities that still emit greenhouse gases and toxins — including a Western Maryland paper mill and a trash incinerator that is Baltimore’s largest source of air pollution.

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Del. Sally Jameson, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that voted against the proposals, called the rejections of expanding renewable energy “regretful.”

Delegates were concerned about whether electricity bills would go up if the state increased its reliance on renewable energy. Worries about whether existing subsidies for renewable energy actually were funding processes that are not entirely clean could be addressed later, Jameson said.

Black liquor, a byproduct of the paper-making process that is burned to power paper mills, is Maryland's largest source of "renewable" energy, earning it millions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies.

“There are too many dollars involved,” the Charles County Democrat said. “It was literally millions upon millions of dollars.”

Del. Shane Robinson, who had sponsored the bill to significantly rewrite state energy policy and eventually get the state to 100 percent renewable energy, said the dueling proposals from environmentalists presented lawmakers with an intimidating task.

“Because they were different approaches, they ended up damaging each other,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. If environmentalists could not agree, he said, many lawmakers were probably asking themselves, “How do you expect me to make a decision?”

Along with an aggressive goal of expanding the state’s renewable energy supply, Robinson’s bill would have drastically narrowed the types of energy generation eligible to receive subsidies from Maryland ratepayers because they are considered “renewable.”

In 2018, Maryland environmental advocates will press lawmakers to clean up the state's renewable energy supply, which subsidizes some polluting power sources. But it could be difficult to reach consensus on what changes need to be made.

The bill had the support of groups including the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch.

The Maryland Climate Coalition had sponsored a bill that would have left the state’s existing renewable energy incentive program largely intact, but doubled the state’s supply of green power to 50 percent and disqualified trash incinerators from receiving subsidies. The coalition includes groups such as the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environment Maryland and the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Initiative.

Jameson said lawmakers also were reluctant to move forward with either proposal while a state energy agency conducts a study of the costs and benefits of the state renewable energy incentives. The report is due by Dec. 1, 2019.

Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery Democrat who sponsored the climate coalition bill seeking 50 percent renewable energy, said he suspects election-year politics played into the bills’ fate this year. Many lawmakers are focused on other issues that they think are more important to voters, he said.

And concerns about campaign support likely discouraged some officials from entertaining any debate about whether the state should continue to consider designating trash incineration or a paper industry byproduct known as black liquor as green energy, Feldman said.

Debate on that question has stalled before because it pits environmentalists against unions who represent paper industry workers, both factions with influence over Democratic lawmakers.

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“As a practical matter, that’s a tough battle in an election year for a lot of folks,” Feldman said. “If you want to pass a bill you have to be targeted about what fights you want to pick.”

He added that, despite both measures’ failure in the House, senators still plan to hold a work group on his bill. There is no Senate version of Robinson’s proposal for 100 percent renewable energy.

A state renewable energy program is sending millions of dollars of ratepayer subsidies to Baltimore's biggest polluter, the Wheelabrator incinerator. Community activists in South Baltimore are trying to increase recycling to essentially put the incinerator out of business.

Advocates were hopeful that a Monday meeting in the Senate Finance committee would keep their proposal alive and produce something that could be palatable to the delegates who voted it down.

“We’re hoping this bill will make a comeback on the Senate side,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “There is special urgency this year given that the Trump administration has proven to be very, very hostile to clean energy policies at the national level. There’s more and more need for states to take the lead.”

But Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, said he was not surprised, or all that disappointed, to see the proposals’ defeat in the House. His organization was among those supporting Robinson’s bill, and he said he doesn’t think the Senate bill that remains under consideration goes far enough to promote emissions-free energy.

“It would be dangerous, in a lot of our minds, to pass a bill like the 50 percent bill that still includes so much dirty energy,” he said. “Honestly, I’m glad the bills failed. We don’t have the political momentum to get a good bill passed this year.”

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