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Maryland's RGGI choice

Is Governor Hogan going to endorse more ambitious climate change goals?

From the start, Maryland's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has been an unmitigated success. The multi-state cap-and-trade compact has substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions from power plants while reducing average utility bills and investing more than $1.3 billion in clean energy and conservation initiatives that have created at least 14,000 new jobs.

The question now before Maryland and the eight other northeastern states that have been a part of RGGI for most of the last decade is this: Should the voluntary arrangement be extended past 2020 and, if so, what should be its goals? Massachusetts supports raising the standard from a 2.5 percent reduction in emissions each year to 5 percent — a target Gov. Larry Hogan's administration has said might be too ambitious for Maryland to remain involved.

Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles insists that the state remains committed to cleaner air but worries about unintended consequences. Delaware may be facing a similar choice if the more stringent goal puts the state at a competitive disadvantage without necessarily producing cleaner air. Both states draw a greater percentage of their electricity from coal-fired power plants than do New England states. A full withdrawal from RGGI is a scenario that Mr. Grumbles believes to be unlikely but can't rule out.

But while Secretary Grumbles has spoken approvingly of RGGI before (telling The Sun's editorial board last year that it's been "smart" and "useful"), it's not clear exactly what (or who) will drive the state's position. Governor Hogan's decision earlier this year to veto a popular emissions-related bill approved by the General Assembly has already cast doubt about the administration's commitment to improving air quality and fighting climate change.

The legislation, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, would have raised Maryland's clean energy goal from 20 percent to 25 percent, a target that seemed entirely reasonable given the state's long-term quest to reach 40 percent carbon reductions by 2030. The governor's reasoning? It could prove costly to ratepayers.

But how the cost issue would play out is not exactly clear. A decade ago, RGGI opponents made the same claim with the same logic — cleaner air means higher electricity rates. But it didn't work out that way. A 2015 study found that people living in RGGI states actually ended up paying less for power than people living elsewhere while the proceeds from RGGI auctions fueled investments that saved business and residential customers money, too.

So what would the Clean Energy Jobs Act have cost? Estimates run all over the place, but an analysis conducted by the Department of Legislative Services projects average monthly bills rising by an average of $1-$2 in future years (and perhaps by much less). And even that estimate fails to take into account the health savings produced by cleaner air — no small consideration in a state with failing air pollution grades from the American Lung Association and one that is burdened with the fifth worst adult asthma in the nation.

There's also a matter of opportunity cost. As the United States and other countries move toward lowering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, states that act sooner rather than later will be rewarded with clean energy jobs. Large companies like Ikea, Staples, Gap and North Face are already lobbying for the tougher RGGI standards because they see long-term benefits to the economy and consumer spending.

But here's where the Hogan administration may have some legitimate concern: Neighboring states like Pennsylvania aren't part of RGGI. While they, too, will presumably have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under the EPA's Clean Power Plan (which was put on a temporary hold earlier this year by the Supreme Court prior to Antonin Scalia's death), Maryland ratepayers might find themselves cursed twice — paying more for cleaner power but still suffering downwind power plant pollution. The only difference would be that the electricity from those same coal-fired power plants will be consumed in places like Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh instead of Baltimore, Annapolis or Rockville.

The answer? Get more states to join RGGI and elect a president who supports the Clean Power Plan. (Hint: Donald J. Trump doesn't.) That would surely be a welcome development, but RGGI members may still need to allow for the circumstances of states located in differing power grids. Polls show most Marylanders are willing to pay more for electricity in exchange for cleaner air, but paying more for electricity and getting no environmental benefit in return? That would be a problem.

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