header
Climate

As Maryland General Assembly Session Ends, Advocates Consider Successes, Failures and Backdoor Maneuvers 

[ad_1]

Maryland Governor Wes Moore was quick to declare legislative victory as the General Assembly adjourned its 2024 legislative session Monday night amid a last-minute legislative frenzy. 

But for advocates and environmentalists, the session was at best mediocre for the state’s lofty climate aspirations. Some fear late backroom interventions and compromises could upend the state’s ability to meet its statutory emissions reduction and clean energy targets. 

The advocates felt particularly broadsided when, with just six days left in the session, the joint House and Senate Budget Conference Committee, tasked with finalizing the 2025 state budget, approved a controversial amendment that blocks the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) from fulfilling a key provision of the state’s Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings over 35,000 feet while helping ratepayers reduce utility bills.

The amendment, backed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, specifically restricts the MDE from spending any funds to adopt or establish “site energy use intensity (EUI),” which refers to the amount of energy used per square foot annually. 

We’re hiring!

Please take a look at the new openings in our newsroom.

See jobs

The landmark Climate Solutions Now Act requires the MDE to establish, adopt and enforce energy use intensity targets, requiring large building owners to comply with energy efficiency standards or pay a fee for the building’s failure to meet direct greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Starting in 2025, building owners are also required to measure and report direct emissions data to the MDE annually. 

The budgetary amendment now requires the agency to carry out a number of technical reporting feasibility studies and other time-consuming bureaucratic chores before it can access the funds for the benchmarking required to establish and then adopt the energy-use intensity targets as part of the broader Building Energy Performance Standards. The MDE has been working to establish those standards in consultation with a broad array of stakeholders for the last two years, which, the advocates say, would go to waste in view of the new requirements from the committee. 

“This was supposed to be the year Maryland took big steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Instead, we are watching our leaders in Annapolis weaken the landmark Climate Solutions Now Act,” said Jamie DeMarco, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund’s Maryland director. He said that the amendment effectively requires the MDE to undertake another two years of additional work. 

“Our hope is that the attorney general will throw this out because the Climate Solutions Now Act is a statute and this budget amendment is essentially trying to repeal the statute,” he added. 

“If you take a look at the language in the budget amendment, it has [building and construction] industry fingerprints all over it,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. “It’s a repeat problem of not having an open and direct conversation about what the strategy is. It’s very disrespectful to the advocates and stakeholders and other people who spent the last two years on this issue. And it’s just frustrating.” 

Carter Elliott, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Moore is aware of the amendment and the administration is “working to ensure compliance with it while continuing our efforts to implement strong building energy performance standards. 

“We are still trying to figure out the real effects of this budget amendment, but it may delay our rollout of those standards,” Elliott said in emailed remarks. “However, the budget amendment does not change state law. Buildings must achieve net zero direct emissions by 2040.” 

He added that climate issues continue to be the administration’s priority. “We partnered with legislators to make progress this session in protecting the Chesapeake Bay and our waterways, eliminating the manufacturing exemption, and passing the EmPOWER bill,” he wrote.  

Other environmental leaders, including Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters (LCV) also called the move “disappointing,” saying it undermines trust in the legislative process, weakens existing legislation and interferes in the workings of the state’s regulatory agencies such as the MDE.

For now, the amendment has gone through and will take effect when the state’s next fiscal year begins on July 1.

The general assembly also passed the Critical Infrastructure Streamlining Act of 2024 with some amendments suggested by advocacy groups who initially opposed the measure. The bill, which was backed by Moore and other environmental agencies including the MDE and the Maryland Energy Administration, excludes data centers from preliminary environmental scrutiny by the Maryland Public Service Commission.    

Advocacy organizations said at the time that excluding data centers from environmental appraisal would compromise the state’s climate and environmental targets, weaken regulatory controls and further expose underserved communities to environmental harms because of the pollution from diesel-powered generators data centers run for maintenance and in emergencies. 

Coble said her group decided to drop its opposition after the Moore administration agreed to an amendment which would divert a percentage of corporate income tax the data centers will pay each year to fund emissions reduction initiatives. “That amendment resulted in us moving from opposing the bill to being neutral. We didn’t support it. But we didn’t fight it anymore with that amendment,” Coble said. 

Another bill that witnessed last-minute haggling stretching well into the final day of the session was SB1, which put in place certain regulatory requirements for the utility retail choice industry in Maryland and attracted a huge lobbying effort and string pulling behind closed doors.

The Senate and House locked horns on an amendment the House Economic Matters Committee attached to the bill, which sought to prevent energy giant Constellation from hosting a data center on its property next to Calvert Cliffs, the nuclear power plant it owns in Southern Maryland. The facility fulfills about 39 percent of Maryland’s electricity demand.

“Many of us in the General Assembly were not aware of the fact that Constellation had been working with Amazon [on the data center] and had planned to announce this colocation behind the walls at Calvert Cliffs. And we were not aware of that until well into session,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Montgomery County Democrat, who backed the amendment.  

She said that once the lawmakers became aware of the issue, there were significant concerns about the possibility of a data center coming in, taking generation off the grid and not paying for the transmission and distribution upgrades that would be necessary to respond to that loss of power. The ratepayers would be left to pay the tab for new generation and transmission capacity that would be needed in such a situation, Charkoudian said.

With only a few hours left in the final day of the session on Monday, the House agreed to drop the amendment and commission a study by the PSC instead to look at the liability issues and potential solutions, allowing the bill to move over the finish line.  

“The bill would reform the competitive residential retail energy market so that consumers can enjoy the benefits of retail energy and have more rate protections,” said Laurel Peltier, an energy justice advocate who worked to move the legislation over the finish line. This law gives the Maryland Public Service Commission and the Office of People’s Council, which looks after the ratepayers’ interest in the state, more authority to regulate this market. 

Tammy Bresnahan, senior director of advocacy at AARP Maryland, said that in addition to granting more oversight to the PSC, the law also eliminates what is known as Purchase of Receivables, which guaranteed that the retailers would be paid by the utilities even when their customers defaulted, and gave the energy retailers great incentive to charge higher rates. 

“There were some really unscrupulous practices going on and we feel that this bill brings much needed accountability and transparency to customers to make informed choices,” Bresnahan said, referring to deceitful bait-and-switch practices by retail suppliers who prey especially on low-income people. Unlicensed sales representatives often used a common practice called “slamming,” or switching customers’ accounts without their consent. 

Now marketing agents will have to get a license and will also get proper training, Bresnahan said, which should put an end to deceitful marketing ploys. Just as importantly, third party retailers will have to explain to customers that they are selling real green energy through wind and solar if they want to charge more, she added, which brings more scrutiny to the competitive energy market.  

For the seventh consecutive year, the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act, which sought to remove trash incineration from the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), failed to pass despite bipartisan support. 

The smokestack of the Wheelabrator Incinerator is seen near Interstate 95 in Baltimore. Credit: Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

Trash incinerators, like the one in Baltimore off I-95, emit some of the most toxic pollutants, for which there is no safe level of exposure, such as lead, mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. 

Last year, a similar bill aimed at removing trash incineration, factory farm gas and woody biomass from the state’s RPS also failed to pass. This year, the lawmakers and advocates supporting the bill hoped that limiting the focus of the bill to trash incineration alone would ensure its passage. But didn’t prove to be as helpful as many had hoped.

“Moore was a big disappointment on this issue. The Moore administration included eliminating trash incineration from the RPS in its climate pollution reduction plan that was announced in December. And yet it did not support or endorse the legislation,” said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland organizing director of Clean Water Action, an advocacy group. 

She said it remains unclear why Sen. Brian Feldman, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and Environment, did not put the bill to a vote after advocates answered every concern lawmakers raised.

“Just as much as this is a failure on legislative leadership’s part, this is a failure on Moore’s part,” Kunze said. “He had the opportunity to pass a fiscally responsible piece of legislation fulfilling environmental justice communities demands, making tens of millions of dollars a year available to invest in renewable energy at no cost to the state budget. But instead he stayed silent on the bill and that’s just not acceptable.”

Another bill that couldn’t make it across the finish line was Transportation and Climate Alignment Act, which sought to require the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and other regional agencies to carry out a climate pollution and Vehicle Miles Traveled assessment of highway expansion projects over $10 million at the design stage to include greenhouse gas mitigation measures like public transit and bike infrastructure near adjacent communities. The bill got to a third reading in the House. 

A Few Wins, But ‘Significant’ Steps Backward

Advocates cheered the passing of the EmPOWER Maryland Reform Bill, which would align the state’s largest energy efficiency program with Maryland’s emissions reduction goals. 

“Investing in energy efficiency is one of the smartest investments our state can make in our clean energy,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, a consumer advocacy group. 

This story is funded by readers like you.

Our nonprofit newsroom provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going. Please donate now to support our work.

Donate Now

She said that in recent years, some utilities made excessive profits off the EmPOWER program, undermining the state’s energy efficiency goals. “We applaud the General Assembly and Moore Administration for standing up for ratepayers by rejecting attempts by some electric and gas utilities to lock in future profits,“ she said. 

The General Assembly also overwhelmingly passed the WARMTH Act, which could transform how Maryland equitably and affordably delivers climate-friendly heating and cooling to entire neighborhoods. 

Sponsored by Charkoudian and Sen. Katie Fry Hester, the bill requires Maryland’s utilities to initiate up to two networked geothermal pilot programs to explore how the state can transition communities off of the gas system. Networked geothermal relies on underground water-filled pipes to which homes and buildings can connect through heat pumps. The approach can lower energy bills and provides a pathway that allows gas utility workers to use their existing skills in the clean energy industry. 

“But there are some significant steps backwards and was there a single bill that really advanced climate action? The answer is no.”

One of the bigger worries advocates expressed was that the 2024 legislative session did not field or support any of the bills that promised to bring new fiscally responsible cash injections to propel the state’s clean energy transition. This is despite the fact that the MDE’s Climate Pollution Reduction Plan the agency released in December put the figure of $1 billion a year for the next 10 years for Maryland to achieve its lofty climate and emissions reduction targets. 

Most of the bills that proposed to generate funding streams through legislative action failed to advance including the Responding to Emergency Needs from Extreme Weather (RENEW) Act, which seeks to establish a $900 million Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Fund by making oil and gas companies pay for their pollution or the cap-and-invest program, which would have generated $300 million for climate initiatives. 

“The governor did put $90 million as a one-time down payment on climate actions and I’m grateful that he did. But the question about long-term sustained funding for climate remains,” said LCV’s Coble. “There were good steps such as improving the EmPOWER program and there were a number of smaller steps that add up to progress. But there are some significant steps backwards and was there a single bill that really advanced climate action? The answer is no.” 

“I think we had a couple of really key wins. And there are a number of things that are disappointing,” countered Charkoudian. Among the bills she highlighted as key wins included the offshore wind bill, the Brighter Tomorrow Act, which incentivizes rooftop and smaller-scale solar efforts, and the EmPOWER Reform Act. “We have this robust climate action plan based on the Climate Solutions Now Act and we went through the session and still don’t have a really clear funding source for it,” she said. “That is a big disappointment.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button