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Maryland Senate passes major climate bill, but without key policy cutting fossil fuel dependence

Debate on a sweeping climate change bill is expected to begin soon in the Maryland House of Delegates after the Senate passed it Monday. The legislation would accelerate state greenhouse gas reduction goals in a bid to make the state carbon neutral by 2045, while requiring large buildings to significantly reduce energy footprints by 2035.

But the Senate abandoned environmentalists’ most aggressive proposal for reducing dependence on fossil fuels — one that would have outlawed fossil fuel-based heating systems in new buildings. That change came even though a state climate change commission, including three members of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s cabinet, overwhelmingly endorsed such a ban.

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The overarching purpose of the bill, named the Climate Solutions Now Act, is to set a 2030 target to reduce Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60% below 2006 levels, replacing an earlier 40% emissions reduction goal.

Democrats in the General Assembly have vowed to pass major climate legislation this spring. A similar bill failed last year when leaders in the House and Senate could not agree on how aggressively to cut emissions. But with statewide elections scheduled this year, the leaders have said they expect to reach a compromise.

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Still, it remains to be seen whether and how dramatically Democrats might agree to pursue climate action, an issue increasingly frustrating environmentalists and a wing of the party demanding more transformational policy to address the urgency of the climate crisis.

Delegates said they watched the Senate debate closely and, as they take up the bill, expect to bring in proposals of their own to encourage a move away from fossil fuels. The House could move quickly to pass a bill so there is time for the Democratic majority to override an expected Hogan veto before the General Assembly adjourns April 11.

“We fully expect that the House and Senate are going to agree on significant climate legislation,” said Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat. As for how the House will address the Senate’s changes to the bill, “I can’t say what the House’s approach will be.”

During 4-1/2 hours of floor debate Thursday, the Republican minority called the climate bill too expensive and cumbersome while not guaranteeing any reduction in the risks the state faces from extreme weather induced by climate change. They said Maryland is too small a state to make an impact on global climate.

Amid the discussion, Hogan released a statement calling the legislation a “reckless and controversial energy tax bill,” though it does not include tax proposals.

Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire, of Anne Arundel County, suggested it would cost households $10,000 each but, when pressed, said that estimate is tied to the cost of replacing home windows and furnaces. The bill does not apply to homes unless they are greater than 25,000 square feet.

The legislation is so complex that nonpartisan legislative analysts who typically offer cost estimates with every bill did not assign it a price tag. They said the climate bill would create “significant costs” for building owners, businesses and electricity ratepayers, but may bring long-term energy savings.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that Maryland could not stop climate change on its own. But he said the state must pursue more aggressive action to help lead the nation and world toward reducing global carbon emissions.

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“There’s not one action the planet can take. It really is starting with small steps,” Pinsky said. “The only way for us to move forward is to do what we can do in our state.”

The Hogan administration says the state is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2006 levels by 2030, but some environmentalists are skeptical of that calculation.

On the House side, legislators are “evaluating a number of options” to promote building electrification given the outcome in the Senate, said Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House environment and transportation committee. Rather than file a single companion bill to go with the Senate’s complex legislation, delegates broke similar proposals into several bills, each of which received hearings in the House last month.

One key element to achieve emissions reduction goals would require buildings 25,000 square feet or larger to reduce emissions by 30% below 2025 levels by 2035, and to stop producing any carbon emissions on-site by 2040. Along with office buildings, grocery stores and hospitals, that includes large multifamily residential buildings — something that drew criticism from some Republicans for placing a burden on low- and moderate-income residents who are most likely to live in apartments, suggesting building owners will pass along costs to renters.

Agricultural and historic buildings would be exempt from emissions reduction requirements, as would public school buildings. But senators agreed to still direct the Maryland Department of the Environment to collect information on school buildings’ carbon footprints to establish a baseline should lawmakers decide to require energy retrofits in the future.

Other aspects of the bill include pushing the state to purchase more zero-emissions vehicles; establishing a Climate Justice Corps that would employ young people for green energy and environmental justice projects in communities disproportionately affected by climate change; and to better monitor and eventually cap methane emissions from landfills, whose impact on climate change have in the past been vastly underestimated.

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But the bill no longer includes the proposal to establish statewide building standards that would have required new structures to include water and space heating systems that do not use fossil fuels.

The idea behind such a policy is that installing fossil fuel-based heating systems in new buildings extends the time it will take to wean the nation off those fuels. While much of the power used by electric heating systems currently comes from fossil fuel-fired power plants, it could just as easily come from renewable sources as the country greens its electricity grid.

Pinsky said the provision was removed after fierce opposition from gas fitters, commercial property owners and utilities, who said the grid could not handle a switch to all-electric new construction without significant investments in new substations and other grid infrastructure. Some opponents expressed fear that the grid’s reliability could suffer. Small fossil fuel distributors and workers told lawmakers they worried the change could spell the end of their careers.

BGE officials remain concerned that the bill “could expose our customers to service reliability risk,” and plan to “continue to engage constructively” as it advances to the House, said Sandy I-ru Grace, the utility’s vice president of governmental and external affairs.

Michael Powell, a lobbyist representing the commercial real estate group NAIOP, said building owners were pleased to see changes to the bill but remain concerned that it does not provide financial incentives to help them with energy retrofits.

Legislators had pulled the idea for an all-electric construction code from a report by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. It was one of dozens of policy recommendations offered in a building energy transition plan the group released in November after months of discussions, though the commission did not set a timeline for its vision.

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The commission approved those recommendations by a 24-2 vote, with support from Hogan’s secretaries of natural resources, the environment and agriculture. The heads of the state Department of Planning and Maryland Energy Administration opposed it.

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In place of the building code reforms, the Senate bill would require the Public Service Commission to evaluate the impact of electrifying more buildings. Pinsky said he’s hopeful that study would put the concerns “to bed.”

“If you start digging and put in gas pipes, you’re going to use them forever. And we’ve got to move away from fossil fuels,” he said. “We’ve got to move to the 21st and 22nd century solutions.”

Environmentalists were disappointed the Senate bill isn’t doing more to push the state off fossil fuels, but said they were glad to see lawmakers adamant to still pass significant climate legislation.

Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation voters, noted that her organization’s annual report card, an important badge for Democrats in Annapolis, gave the General Assembly a D and an F for its environmental inaction the past two years.

“They’re motivated to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, because there’s an election this year, and because we’re holding them accountable for it,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure it’s the strongest bill or bills possible.”

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But for those who’d expected to see more dramatic action, “disappointment is a mild way of putting it,” said Victoria Venable, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

“When you look at the emissions we’re cutting, especially with the building sector, we have so much more work to do,” she said. “It’s hard to continue to do the incremental change when what we really need is transformative policy change.”


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