Climate advocates question "watered down" Senate environmental bill

ANNAPOLIS (March 11, 2022)—Environmental advocates are criticizing changes made to landmark climate change legislation in the Maryland Senate, as lawmakers cut key provisions in a compromise designed to ensure its passage in the chamber next week.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, which would bring widespread changes to greenhouse gas emission standards from buildings in the state, was amended to drop a mandate that all buildings constructed beginning in 2024 be all-electric.

Climate advocates argue that the dropped provision was key to helping the state reach some of the emissions reduction goals in the bill.

Utility company representatives contended that the electric grid would not be able to handle the increased demand brought about by an all-electric code by 2024. Instead, the bill now calls for a study to determine if the grid has enough capacity to support such a mandate.

Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in an interview with Capital News Service that the bill had been "substantially watered down." Consequently, the legislation would be a "small step forward," he said.

Tidwell said he was hopeful the House of Delegates, which is considering a similar slate of bills, could make small improvements.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, the legislation's sponsor, said he was disappointed that the all-electric code was stripped, but said in an interview Friday he felt other provisions were too important to delay the bill.

"I had pushback from many places, and I didn't want to jeopardize the bill," said Pinsky, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "I think we come back and address it again. I'm not sure the votes were there, and the other parts of the bill were important enough to move it."

Josh Kurtz, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in an interview he was disappointed the bill would not include the all-electric code, but said it still had policies that would drive progress on environmental issues.

Kurtz said he understood concerns that striking the all-electric code for a study might be a "stall tactic," but said he was encouraged by the resolve of legislators to hold the rest of the bill together.

"We're seeing both chambers hold strong on key components (of the bill)," Kurtz said.

Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter, said in an interview utility companies deceived legislators about grid capacity to "milk out as much profit as they can."

Tulkin said he was frustrated that the bill will not require an all-electric building code, but he said he believed the legislation "is still a strong bill."

"It is not far enough, not fast enough, but a good first step on a long journey," he said.

Another amendment changed how the state will determine how much buildings over 25,000 square feet will need to reduce emissions.

Under the new language, large buildings would begin to report emissions data to the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2025, and the state will use the information to establish a baseline of emissions for different building types. Buildings will have to reduce emissions by 30% of that baseline by 2035, and must reduce their emissions to net zero by 2040, according to Pinsky's Chief of Staff Ian Ullman.

The legislation still sets goals for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions in the state by 2045.

Climate advocates said the Senate legislation could provide momentum for achieving more ambitious climate goals.

The bill faced extensive debate on the Senate floor this week, as some Republican senators questioned whether the legislation would make an impact on global environmental issues.

"(The bill) places a harsh financial burden on the backs of Marylanders, while failing to deliver any measurable environmental benefits to save our planet, or Maryland, for that matter," Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, said on the floor Thursday.

Pinsky said he expects the bill to face a final floor vote early next week.

In a statement released while Senators were debating the legislation on the floor Thursday, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan blasted the bill, calling it an "energy tax bill."

Kaitlyn Levinson contributed to this story.

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