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

In Maryland, we like to think of ourselves as pretty green. We are home to the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary. We have resort areas on the Atlantic Ocean and in our small piece of the Appalachians at the opposite end of the state. We expect our governors and lawmakers to protect our natural resources, from mountains to shore, and to do so on a bipartisan basis. Leaders like former Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr. and former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, both Republicans, and former Govs. Harry R. Hughes and Parris Glendening, both Democrats, have proudly upheld that tradition.

But, alas, we have also been proven susceptible to a little green-washing or, as Food and Water Watch calls it, "cleanwashing." For many years, Maryland has defined some highly-polluting sources of energy as "renewable" and gone so far as to subsidize them. There are many reasons why this has developed, but they basically boil down to one — a willingness to give polluters a pass because it was politically or economically inconvenient not to do so.


Recently, two groups called out this hypocrisy, and they deserve to be heard. Food and Water Watch issued a report card giving Maryland an "F" for renewable energy, putting it in the bottom tier nationwide with just six other states. And Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility issued a report pointing out the state's failure to enforce a true green standard on utilities and to promote true green energy production in Maryland (as opposed to letting power companies simply buy green energy credits from out-of-state, which is where three-quarters of Maryland's renewable tax credits end up).

Their complaints are best illustrated by two especially troubling cases — Maryland's willingness to classify as renewable trash incinerators in Baltimore and in Montgomery County as well as the "black liquor" produced by a paper mill in Western Maryland. To describe any of these as "clean" energy is, of course, absurd. They are surely cleaner than some (an aging coal-fired power plant, for example) but hardly in the same category as solar or wind energy. Yet the state's continued willingness to lump them in with the greenest of the green is not only harmful to air quality, it's reducing the market incentive for actual renewable energy production in the Free State.

James Alston, who grew up in Westport, is infuriated over the state of his community’s air, calling it “environmental racism.” (Baltimore Sun video)

Wheelabrator Baltimore, which spews such toxic chemicals as hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde from its Southwest Baltimore smokestacks, is not on par with any wind farm. Yet we are rewarding trash-burning every day while two planned wind farms off the coast of Maryland are actively opposed by elected officials in Ocean City because — and the short-sightedness of this is mind-boggling — the turbines to be built miles off-shore might be seen as unattractive, if distant, objects on the horizon by beach-goers (on days when the weather permits such a distant view). The burning of black liquor — a sludge made out of caustic chemicals and wood waste left over from the papermaking process — in Luke is just as absurd.

Lawmakers have had numerous opportunities to correct this nonsense, but they have not. Nor has Maryland's incumbent Republican governor. Why? Our best guess is because it's much easier to spend taxpayer dollars wastefully subsidizing polluters than standing their ground and disrupting the status quo. Ending the practice of handing out credits for black liquor could mean shutting down the Luke Mill, for example, given declining demand for paper products.

Maryland voters will need to demand better from whomever they choose to elect this fall. Paying lip-service to renewable energy isn't good enough. Candidates are going to have to explain what they are going to do about this state's blatant hypocrisy in matters of clean energy. Are we going to demand that more of our electricity come from clean sources but then have such a broad definition of clean energy that the requirement is practically meaningless? Actions speak louder than words. It's time to stop the bamboozling and measure the state's renewable energy accomplishments not just by paperwork but by real investment in non-polluting energy production in the state.

Oh, and, by the way, there are thousands of jobs at stake in this. In off-shore wind power alone, Maryland is positioned to be a national leader and perhaps a center to a fledgling industry. Can we afford to lose that economic opportunity? Surely, a pro-business administration would speak out forcefully against green-washing.

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