Throughout his more than two decades in the Maryland House of Delegates, Del. Anthony O'Donnell has been a reliable skeptic of climate change. As House Minority Leader in 2009, he was a floor leader in the Republican effort to turn back or neuter a law requiring utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, railing against the "hidden tax" of higher electricity costs.
Small wonder that the Southern Maryland resident's recent nomination by Gov. Larry Hogan to serve on the Maryland Public Service Commission got a thumbs down by environmentalists who have been pushing for Maryland to be a leader in the fight against climate change. Delegate O'Donnell's rating under the Maryland League of Conservation's scorecard was 33 percent last year, which was slightly better than his 20 percent average since 2003.
We fundamentally disagree with Mr. O'Donnell on climate science and the benefits of nurturing renewable energy. With 3,000 miles of coastline, the threat posed by rising sea levels to Maryland is substantial, and while the state's total carbon emissions may amount to a proverbial drop in the global bucket, it would be foolish to ignore its plight. Maryland has an opportunity not only to help spare itself billions in costly flooding but to nurture a potentially lucrative economy in solar, wind and other green energy sources.
But the question that will be put to the state Senate is whether Mr. O'Donnell's views — and perhaps his 15-year career with Baltimore Gas and Electric at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, where he once handled emergency preparedness — should disqualify him from a seat on the five-member regulatory agency. They fear that the 55-year-old Calvert County representative is part of Governor Hogan's broader agenda to undermine Maryland's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What has particularly unnerved members of the Maryland Climate Coalition was Mr. Hogan's recent veto of a bill that would have accelerated Maryland's investment in renewable energy — requiring utilities to get 25 percent of their power from green sources by 2020 instead of the 20 percent mandated under current law. The action was a surprise given that in April the governor signed into a law legislation calling for Maryland to cut carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030. And it came on top of the administration's opposition to expanding conservation incentives under the EmPOWER Maryland program.
Just as troubling was the language of Mr. Hogan's veto: "This legislation is a tax increase that will be levied upon every single electricity ratepayer in Maryland, and for that reason alone, I cannot allow it to become law," he wrote. Both the veto and the opposition to EmPOWER's surcharges (which are turned around and given back to consumers in the form of rebates, free home checkups and other bill credits) suggest Mr. Hogan is missing the big picture and the costs associated with climate change — or the benefits of being "open for business" to the next generation of renewable energy suppliers.
Still, if the decision to be made is whether Mr. O'Donnell's views (and by extension, the governor's, as they seem to be quite similar) should preclude him from service, we are deeply skeptical. Elections have consequences and Maryland voters in 2014 opted for the gubernatorial candidate they judged was most business "friendly" as ill-defined as that concept may be. The Senate rarely votes down a gubernatorial appointment for that reason, and any expectation that they would deny such a post to a fellow legislator on top of that might be construed as magical thinking.
But that doesn't mean Mr. O'Donnell doesn't deserve a thorough grilling by members of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee who should explore just how far his disdain for promoting green energy alternatives may go. Mr. O'Donnell represents the third appointment to the PSC by Mr. Hogan which means he now "owns" any decisions it makes, good or bad. The governor may recall that under the last Republican administration, a Republican-controlled PSC was seen as too cozy with the state's largest utility, and when there was a record rate increase, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. paid a steep political price for it.
Meanwhile, it's likely that the General Assembly will overturn Governor Hogan's veto and the higher renewable standard will be imposed anyway. There may be other ways the PSC can undermine efforts to move Maryland away from its dependence on coal-burning power plants and other greenhouse gas producers and toward cleaner forms of energy, but that will simply require further vigilance by lawmakers no matter who occupies the commission's seats.