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Maryland Democrats renew efforts for landmark climate change legislation

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly are taking another run at major environmental legislation during this year’s session, with plans to set the state on course for net zero carbon emissions by 2045, according to top legislators and aides in both chambers.

If passed, Democrats’ goal to slice the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60% would be one of the most aggressive measures in the country, according to data from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a global climate policy think tank.

Democratic lawmakers said they still need to remedy some of their differences over reduction targets, timetables and the details of how they plan to achieve the reductions, but they said there is broad agreement on certain aspects of their plans.

Their legislation would require state-owned buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut emissions to net zero by 2035 and privately-owned buildings of the same size to achieve net zero by 2040.

The bills would mandate that all new buildings be ready for the installation of solar energy and electric vehicle charging stations by 2024.

The legislation would set a cap on emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, from landfills. The 51,500 tons of methane emitted from Maryland landfills in 2017 was equivalent to the emissions of over 254,000 passenger vehicles driven for one year, according to data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The bills would also create additional mechanisms to more closely monitor and curb methane. In 2017, the state underestimated methane emissions from landfills by over 39,000 tons, according to state data.

The bills would transition the state’s light-duty vehicle fleet, currently about 5,500 cars and small trucks, to zero emission electric or hybrid vehicles. The Senate version would require that 100% of passenger and light-duty vehicles being purchased by the state be zero emission or hybrids by 2033. In 2021, the fleet included a mere 49 zero emission electric vehicles.

Senate and House leaders said the bill will address environmental justice by promoting job opportunities and investing in clean energy projects in neighborhoods that have historically been plagued by high pollution, such as certain areas in Baltimore.

Maryland voters appear receptive to climate change legislation.

A January poll commissioned by Chesapeake Climate Action Network Maryland, one of the state’s leading environmental groups, found that 63% of Maryland voters think the state should prioritize cutting pollution by 60% by 2030.

The renewed push comes after the climate legislation from last year, the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, failed when Democrats in the two chambers could not agree on an amended bill.

Now, Democratic lawmakers said they are coordinating closely to avoid the breakdown in talks that tanked their efforts last session.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, and Del. Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, are chairs of committees that will oversee most of the legislation.

The Senate will introduce one large bill, while Barve and House legislators will deliver several smaller bills, each designed to address a segment of climate change challenges, lawmakers said in interviews.

The result is a complicated legislative process, and Democratic lawmakers are still not in agreement over the particulars in both chambers.

The Senate bill, the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, was introduced quietly late last month and the first bill in the House, Comprehensive Climate Solutions, was proposed a few days later.

Pinsky and Barve are long-time leaders on environmental issues in the General Assembly . Pinsky has been a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee since 1994 and has introduced a version of the Climate Solutions Now Act for three years in a row. Barve has chaired the Environment and Transportation Committee since 2015 and was a member of the state’s Commission on Climate Change from 2007 to 2014.

Pinsky and Barve told Capital News Service they have been working closely together and held meetings before the start of the legislative session to iron out differences that could threaten the new legislation.

When the 2021 bill failed last session, one of the major sticking points was the rate at which the state would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This year, they will start out more closely aligned.

Last year, Democrats juggled cutting emissions by 50% or 60% and there was a 10 year difference in their timeline for when the reduction would be completed. This year, they are aligned on a 60% cut and the chambers are only two years apart on the implementation.

Pinsky said in an interview he hopes that an omnibus bill will prevent lawmakers from picking and choosing which environmental legislation to vote for, which he said can help make clear to voters where their representatives stand on climate issues in an election year.

Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, said Republican members were willing to work with Democrats on climate issues.

“The Republican Senate Caucus stands ready to work in a bipartisan manner to craft balanced legislation that supports a healthy environment and deals with the impacts of a changing climate,” Simonaire said in a statement. “When legislation is advanced without collaboration, it tends to be more extreme and not in the best interest of Maryland.”

Last year’s legislation faced opposition from labor organizations and the commercial real estate industry, including the Mid-Atlantic Pipes Trade Association, multiple branches of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, Maryland Realtors and the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.

Representatives for energy industry labor leaders, such as Tom Clark of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, said in testimony last year that they are in favor of a transition to cleaner energy sources, but paused at a swift move away from traditional forms of energy like natural gas and coal.

Clark has said union leaders and their members are concerned the transition would mean a loss in jobs for blue-collar workers as their old jobs are phased out without a sufficient increase in jobs in the climate-friendly sector.

For example, renewable energy only accounted for 11% of Maryland’s electricity production in 2020, compared to 79% for natural gas and nuclear energy, according to state data.

“The IBEW and its members are ready and trained for the green economy,” Clark wrote in testimony to the House and Senate last year. “However, until you can store solar energy, Maryland is not ready. I suggest you wait until science and invention catch up to your green goals.”

The 2022 Senate bill instructs the state to make sure the plans to reduce greenhouse gasses “Directly cause no loss of existing jobs in the manufacturing sector” and produce “a net increase in jobs in the State.”

It also would establish a working group to study the number of jobs that would be created by the state’s climate change efforts in the energy, building and transportation sectors.

Additionally, Democrats said, the legislation would offer programs for young people to be trained for careers in the climate-friendly industries.

Barve said in an interview he is confident the transition to clean energy will create jobs, saying the solar and wind energy sector should produce thousands of opportunities.

Expanding solar energy projects could produce as many as 22,000 jobs in the state by 2028, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Aaron Greenfield is the director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, a trade association of managers and owners of rental property.

Greenfield and other representatives for real estate leaders said they are concerned that requirements for construction and renovations needed to comply with new environmental standards could significantly increase costs for developers and renters.

Greenfield said his organization has had productive conversations with the Senate President’s office about the issues.

William Castelli is the senior vice president for government affairs at Maryland Realtors, a non-profit organization that represents real estate agents and brokers. Castelli said he hopes any new legislation will provide homeowners with flexibility on retrofitting homes to meet increased energy standards.

The Senate bill says the building regulations should “provide maximum flexibility to the owners of covered buildings to comply with building emissions standards.”

Victoria Venable, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network Maryland, said she has seen the General Assembly prioritize other important issues instead of climate in recent years, but the time to act on environmental legislation is now.

“We know from the speaker (of the House of Delegates) and the Senate president that this is a priority for both of them,” said Venable in an interview with Capital News Service.

“We can negotiate with each other but we can’t negotiate with the physics.”