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Politics

Maryland lawmakers are once again hoping to pass wide-ranging environmental legislation. Here’s what’s proposed.

After sputtering late in last year’s General Assembly session, efforts to pass wide-ranging environmental legislation in Maryland have resumed — and lawmakers say they’re optimistic they can find common ground.

This year’s proposed bills are similar to last year’s, and include statewide targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to provisions that would require newly constructed buildings to avoid using fossil fuels for heating and require the state to swap some of its vehicles for electric cars.

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If passed, the bills could have far-reaching implications, including for owners of large buildings, which will be required to meet emissions reduction targets, and for those looking to construct new buildings.

The bills would place Maryland among the states with the most ambitious targets for reducing globe-warming emissions. They’d require the state to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, meaning the emissions released are offset by emissions removed from the atmosphere. That’s a target recommended by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change.

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Efforts to pass last year’s main climate bill — the Climate Solutions Now Act — collapsed in the waning hours of the General Assembly session, when differences between House and Senate versions could not be reconciled. Certain provisions were peeled off from the main package and became law, including a measure to plant 5 million native trees in Maryland by 2030 — 10% of them in urban areas.

Among the disagreements last year was a measure from the Senate side that required school districts that were building new schools to make at least one of them a net-zero building by 2030. That would require them to produce as much energy as they use every year.

This year’s Senate bill has a similar measure, though school systems will be able to obtain a waiver if the bill’s requirements raise construction costs too dramatically, said Sen. Paul Pinsky, chair of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“I want to go out of my way [to] not put unnecessary burden on schools,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said. “So, we’re going to be proposing a fund that school systems can tap into to pick up the marginal cost. And if there’s no money in the fund, or the marginal cost gets too big, they get a waiver. So we’re going to make it close to revenue neutral.”

Requirements for school buildings aren’t included in the House version of the legislation, which is divided among a handful of bills, said Del. Kumar Barve, chair of the House’s Environment and Transportation Committee. A major concern last year came from smaller districts that worried they could not afford increased construction school costs, he said.

“We’re not convinced that with new building technologies and methods that are net-zero — or schools that come close to being net-zero — have to be so substantially more expensive,” Barve said. “But we’re still working with our engineering and architectural friends to see if we can find some way to get closer to where the Senate position is currently.”

In 2020, Maryland unveiled its second and third net-zero school buildings. All three are located in the Baltimore area, and made use of $2 million to $3 million from a settlement with Exelon, parent company to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. The buildings use solar panels and geothermal wells, among other technology, to produce energy on-site.

While both of this year’s packages call for the state to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, they disagree slightly on benchmarks for reducing those emissions.

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The Senate legislation, for instance, calls for a 60% reduction in emissions — based on 2006 levels — by 2030, but the House version sets the target date at 2032.

“You want to stretch, but you don’t want to stretch too far,” Barve said of his chamber’s 2032 target.

Current state law calls for a 40% reduction by 2030.

Last year, an analysis by Maryland’s Department of the Environment confirmed that a 50% reduction by 2030 was feasible, with some additional policy decisions.

Pinsky said legislators should push for an aggressive timeline.

“We have to be bold,” Pinsky said. “We have to be assertive. It’s getting worse. We know that every year the flooding is worse in the Inner Harbor and Annapolis.”

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Both of this year’s House and Senate packages call for commercial and residential buildings over 25,000 square feet to reduce their direct emissions incrementally before reaching net-zero emissions by 2040. State-owned buildings have an accelerated timeline.

That would require building owners to take actions such as switching from natural gas, heating oil and propane to efficient electric heat pumps.

The legislation requires Maryland to adopt a new building code by the start of 2023 that would require newly constructed buildings to meet all of their water and space heating needs without the use of fossil fuels.

The recommendations were developed alongside the Maryland Climate Change Commission’s building working group, said Del. Dana Stein, sponsor of the House’s building code legislation.

Lisa Ferretto, an architect and sustainability director who sits on Baltimore’s Commission on Sustainability, called the new requirements reasonable. Some of her clients come in asking for their new buildings to hit sustainability goals, she said, but others don’t prioritize them. Having requirements in state law would help level the playing field.

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“It’s great that the states lead the way,” she said.

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The House and Senate legislation both call for escalating percentages of the state vehicle fleet to be electric cars year over year, but the Senate bill is slightly more ambitious. For instance, it calls for 100% of the passenger cars purchased to be electric by fiscal year 2027, and all passenger cars in the fleet to be electric by 2030. The targets in the House version, sponsored by Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, are one year later.

The Senate bill would require all school buses purchased by local school districts be electric by 2024, but not if they cannot obtain the funds to offset any difference in cost.

The House bills do not have such a provision, but Fraser-Hidalgo has proposed a pilot program that would help school districts lease electric school buses. It was inspired partially by Montgomery County’s decision last year to do just that, he said. The pilot program also would allow private companies to access stored electricity on the buses’ batteries when school systems determine that they won’t be in use, such as during the summer.

While there remain differences between the House and Senate positions, Pinsky said he’s hopeful that this year’s debate will end with a strong legislative package on the governor’s desk.

“Are we exactly in the same place now? No, we’re not. But I think on a lot of these policy foundations, we’re close,” he said. “In a few, we’re even in lockstep.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get it done.”


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