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Maryland lawmakers make deep cuts to key climate bill with end of legislative session looming

With the end of Maryland’s legislative session looming, House lawmakers have made deep cuts to this year’s priority climate change bill, possibly setting up a last-minute showdown with Senate legislators, who passed the bill in March.

Legislators in the House’s Environment and Transportation Committee have stripped from the Climate Solutions Now Act provisions focusing on emissions reductions, building energy efficiency and rooftop solar energy.

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The original bill, for instance, called for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 60% from 2006 levels by 2030. The amended bill calls for a 50% reduction, which falls in line with a plan released by Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration in February.

“[The changes] just reflect a lack of urgency the leadership in the House of Delegates feels about confronting climate change,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “They cut the targets from 60% to 50%, which the administration has already committed to.”

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The bill, with the amendments proposed in a House subcommittee, Pinsky said, “is probably more aptly titled ‘Climate Solutions Sometime Later.’”

Both options would impose larger reductions than the 40% currently required by state law. Both the amended bill and the original call for the state to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, which would require achieving a balance between the emissions produced and removed from the atmosphere.

The 50% requirement, already endorsed by the state’s Department of the Environment, is more realistic, said Del. Kumar Barve, chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, where the bill has been amended.

“I have not seen a single Maryland-based analysis or study that in any way supports a 60% goal,” he said.

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House lawmakers only have a few days left to move the bill through the Economic Matters committee and then approve it in the full House. If an amended version is passed, it would return to the Senate for reconciliation, with a midnight deadline Monday for delivery to the governor’s desk.

The amended bill also excludes several provisions focused on energy efficient buildings, including a requirement that at least one new school building constructed in each jurisdiction from 2022 to 2030 meet net-zero energy requirements.

Maryland’s first net-zero school, Wilde Lake Middle School, opened in 2017 in Howard County, according to the Maryland Energy Administration. Two more such schools were opened last year in Baltimore City, with the help from funds obtained in a utility settlement. Both featured the capacity for rooftop solar, and geothermal wells that produced energy.

House lawmakers were concerned about the funding source backing parts of the bill, Barve said.

The bill would have drawn about $8 million a year from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund for helping low-to-moderate income Marylanders with energy affordability, according to a legislative analysis.

“Especially during a pandemic, when so many people are having difficulty paying their rent, we don’t want to make it even more difficult for low-income people to pay their utility bills,” Barve said. “For us, that’s a no-brainer.”

The original bill would have also scaled up energy conservation requirements for certain new or majorly renovated buildings, up until 2033, when they’d have to have a net-zero energy balance.

“We thought the net-zero requirement for new state buildings would not be practical, at least in the short term,” said Del. Dana Stein, the sponsor of the House bill, and vice chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Lawmakers added different requirements for newly constructed buildings, instead, Stein said. For instance, the amended bill requires any new building that received 50% of its funding from the state must install a high-efficiency HVAC system, where it would pay for itself in 15 years or less.

The amended bill would also require any state agency that deals with the procurement of concrete give a preference to climate-friendly concrete, since cement production emits a large amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide — as much as 8% of the world’s total, according to the CICERO Center for International Climate Research.

Pinsky contends those provisions are watered down versions of the requirements in the original bill and represent a missed opportunity for Maryland.

“Our belief was if we could start to have model buildings, particularly public buildings like schools, across the state, everyone would start to see: This is how we have to move. This is the future,” Pinsky said.

The adjustments made in the House have frustrated some climate activists, who said the original bill was a meaningful step toward addressing climate change in Maryland. Among them is Josh Tulkin, state director for the Maryland Sierra Club.

“One of the bill’s biggest reductions would come from reducing emissions in the building sector, but the current House proposal, as drafted in committee, would eliminate that provision entirely. For this reason, we have serious reservations with this committee proposal,” Tulkin wrote. “The House proposal does add a good provision requiring geothermal and efficient electric heating in new state government buildings.”

The amended bill also weakens a provision that — after July 1, 2022 — would have required certain large new buildings to be “solar ready” meaning solar panels could be installed on at least 40% of their rooftop space. In the House version of the bill, builders also have the option to install a reflective roof or a vegetative terrace or roof.

“Reflective roofs by themselves can lower heat island effects by as much as 5%,” Barve said. “It’s a very powerful way to fight global climate change that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”

Provisions like this one also allow builders needed flexibility, said Bill Castelli, senior vice president of governmental affairs at Maryland Realtors, a group that had voiced concerns about the construction requirements in the bill.

“What might work better for one building in Garrett County — a commercial building, for example — could be very different than what’s going to work in downtown Baltimore,” Castelli said.

But Pinsky said the reflective roof provision pales in comparison to the solar-ready requirement.

“This is to create energy, you know, move away from fossil fuels,” Pinsky said. “And they think painting a roof is going to save energy? I mean, it’s silly. They’re 50 or 100 years behind the times.”

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There are also concerns in the real estate sector that adding additional environmental price tags to projects could disincentivize them, Castelli said. And requiring the expenditures as long as costs are recovered in 15 years may be too long a timeline, he said, especially as businesspeople grapple with the financial impacts of the pandemic.

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“Fifteen years — for some folks, that’s going to work. For other folks, it may just mean: That’s not an investment we can make right now,” Castelli said.

The amended version of the bill also takes away state funding for electrifying the state vehicle fleet, relying instead on federal dollars.

“Unless they wrote it in hidden ink, there’s no funding to pay for the difference in costs to electrify the state fleet,” Pinsky said.

Barve and Stein say the debate isn’t over. Even if their less strict version of the bill is passed, there’s always room to set new requirements down the road, particularly if advancements in technology or new federal government funding make some of the provisions for building energy efficiency more achievable.

“This is the beginning of a conversation — not the end,” Barve said.

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