Larry Hogan, reluctant environmentalist

For more than two years, environmentalists and community groups have been loudly fighting TransCanada’s plan to build a natural gas pipeline from Bedford, Pa. to Berkeley Springs, W. Va. by way of Hancock in Western Maryland and underneath the Potomac River. They argued that Maryland had nothing to gain from the project and much to lose — particularly if the water supply was threatened by a potential leak — and that, fundamentally, the pipeline promoted Marcellus Shale fracking, which the state had banned in 2017 because of the damage it can do to the environment. Yet the Hogan administration seemed, at best, noncommittal on the subject.

All that changed last week when the Board of Public Works voted unanimously not to grant a necessary easement for the project. Opposition from Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp was not a big surprise to opponents, as both had indicated concerns about the project after a recent public hearing. But Gov. Larry Hogan’s vote was not so certain — and not especially well explained during the meeting either. Among his more inscrutable quotes: “We were always to have a 3-nothing vote” and that his opposition “had nothing to do with any letter from the legislature.” That last remark referred to a letter from 60 legislators asking the board to reject the pipeline.

There are really just two possibilities. Either Mr. Hogan read the political tea leaves and jumped on the bandwagon rather than get run over by it, or he sincerely has concerns about the wisdom of risking so much for little to no reward. Perhaps it was a bit of both. His spokeswoman says it was a case of the governor determining that “the economic benefits did not outweigh the environmental risks in this instance.”

Whatever the case, this is not the last time the Hogan administration will have to deal with the difficult subject of fracking or pipelines or an appropriate energy policy in light of climate change. Not only might TransCanada take the state to court over the pipeline but so might the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved the project last summer without the conditions the Maryland Department of the Environment had sought to place on it. And there are other related policy questions about to be explored by the Maryland General Assembly when it reconvenes this week.

The most obvious is what to do about the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would require that at least half the electricity used in the state come from renewable sources by 2030 and mandate the development of a plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. It’s an ambitious proposal but one that now seems inevitable given that 30 incoming state senators and 82 newly-elected members of the House of Delegates (a majority of both chambers) have indicated their support, at least according to the bill’s advocates. On this subject, Mr. Hogan has also been somewhat quiet as well, expressing neither opposition nor support. In 2016, he vetoed a far more modest bill that set what is technically known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard at 25 percent, calling it a “sunshine tax.” Lawmakers subsequently overrode the veto, and Mr. Hogan’s language on the subject changed markedly — in the 2018 election Mr. Hogan didn’t complain about RPS policy at all.

Yet experts say Maryland can’t reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as planned (40 percent less carbon dioxide by 2030) without a 50 percent RPS. That’s not just environmentalists talking; that’s what the state’s own consultants have concluded as well. Meanwhile, lawmakers will grapple over what to do about similar gas pipeline projects in the future. How serious is Maryland about reducing greenhouse gas emissions or preventing harmful chemicals used in fracking from entering the water supply if it enables fracking in surrounding states? Advocates want Maryland to commit to more closely regulating pipelines as neighboring Virginia has already done.

That seems reasonable — and Mr. Hogan ought to get on board early. It’s one thing to sign legislation when it crosses his desk, it’s another to be pushing for the measures at the committee and subcommittee level. The governor’s spokeswoman says Mr. Hogan is waiting to see how the measures “take shape and what exactly is being proposed.” But he ought to be doing more than sitting and waiting. MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles should to be in the trenches asking lawmakers to support stronger renewable energy standards and to commit to pipeline reviews under Section 401 authority of the Clean Water Act. After all, Mr. Hogan has gotten considerable notice for his opposition to President Donald Trump’s climate change denials and obfuscations. He might even have higher political aspirations. How better to demonstrate that a moderate Republican can be pragmatic environmentalist than to support a sensible approach to fossil fuels that protects natural resources and promotes solar, wind and similar green energy sources?

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