Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Annapolis Summit: Md. environmental advocates optimistic about 2016 session

Green jobs and alternative energy sources a major focus

As environmental advocates gear up for the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session, targeting climate change is going to be a top priority.

“This is going to be the year for climate and clean energy,” said Mike Tidwell, founder and executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Workers install a solar panel. (File)

Workers install a solar panel. (File)

Atop this year’s environmental agenda is a proposal that legislators and other advocates say will help Maryland become a leader in clean energy jobs while fighting climate change.

If passed, the bill would grant access to a $40 million fund for workforce development to train people for up to 2,000 clean energy jobs, which are some of the most lucrative in the state.

The money would come from an agreement between the state Public Service Commission and Dominion Energy as part of the approval of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export facility in Lusby. The power company has agreed to pay $8 million annually into a fund managed by the Maryland Energy Administration for five years. The money must be used for renewable clean energy purposes.

Brian J. Feldman. (file)

Brian J. Feldman. (file)

“We’ve got to diversify our economic portfolio in Maryland, and renewable energy is a great place for us to take the lead,” said Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery County, the Senate sponsor for the bill. Del. C. William “Bill” Frick, D-Montgomery County, is the House sponsor and also on the Economic Matters Committee.

While Feldman sees an opportunity in energy sector jobs in Maryland, he is particularly interested in solar energy companies.

“Maryland is very well-positioned to be a leader in solar,” he said.

The bill would also accelerate the schedule for the amount of energy the state generates through alternative sources, such as wind and solar, to 25 percent by 2020. The current state goal is 20 percent by that time.

A version of the bill was unsuccessful last year, but supporters are confident it has a better shot of passing this year because of the support from Del. Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s County and chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, and Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City.

Feldman said he hasn’t received any feedback about the bill from Gov. Larry Hogan’s office yet. He has shared the job-training aspect of the bill with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, because that department would be in charge of administering the program.

Poultry waste

Poultry manure is another contentious topic slated to come up this year. There are three bills underway on the issue, including the Poultry Litter Management Act, the Farmers Rights Act and an unnamed bill targeting “energy” sources such as poultry litter.

The Poultry Litter Management Act will require poultry companies to pick up excess manure to take the burden off individual farmers and taxpayers, according to Michele Merkel, co-director of Food & Water Justice, the legal arm of the environmental advocacy group, Food & Water Watch.

“This bill is really about shifting responsibility,” said Merkel.

The bill will be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery County, and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, and in the House by Del. Clarence Lam, D-Baltimore County and Howard County.

Chickens at a farm in Denton. (file)

Chickens at a farm in Denton. (file)

Last year a bill conceptually similar to the Poultry Litter Management Act, called the Bay Tax Equity Act or “chicken tax” by opponents, did not pass.

The poultry industry has opposed many measures of this type, with farmers saying they impose an unfair burden on their operations.

“These types of bills don’t pass immediately. They’re multi-year efforts,” said Merkel.

The Farmers Rights Act will seek to protect poultry growers from unfair terms in contracts, such as provisions that require growers to invest in expensive equipment. The bill will be introduced by Madaleno and Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City.

Neonicotinoids

Also on the environmental agenda is a plan to revive a neonicotinoids bill that would prohibit the sale of the pesticide and require a label on any seeds, plants or other materials that contain the pesticide. The bill was introduced last year but died in committee.

The proposed ban comes in response to evidence from environmental groups, most recently from the Environmental Protection Agency, that the pesticide is responsible for the death of bees and other pollinators. Maryland beekeepers lost 61 percent of their bee hives last year, according to Smart on Pesticides Coalition.

The ban would affect only pesticides available for consumer use, not those used by farmers.

Plastic bag ban

Despite doubt among some within the environmental community, Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, is optimistic the General Assembly will be able to pass a plastic bag ban this year.

The measure will be sponsored by Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore City, and Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s County.

Support for such a bill has grown among the public, especially from faith-based groups, since Pope Francis put out his encyclical on climate change earlier this year, said Van der Gaag.

“This is the first time we’ve seen that level of dedication to get something like this,” said Van der Gaag.

Advocates of the bill believe it will reduce burden on taxpayers for the cost associated with picking up litter, much of which comes from plastic bags.

Opponents of the measure say it is an unnecessary intrusion by government into business, and others warn that a plastic bag ban would hurt low-income communities. Van der Gaag doesn’t buy that argument.

“We think that everyone is capable of bringing their own bags,” she said, “It’s a behavior change more than it is a fee.”