After two years of frustration, Maryland environmental advocates have much to celebrate after the conclusion earlier this week of what one called a “landmark” General Assembly session in Annapolis.
Over the course of 90 days, lawmakers enacted sweeping climate change legislation that committed Maryland to the most ambitious greenhouse gas reductions of any state in the nation. They also passed a flurry of other “green” bills, including measures to reduce environmental inequities, beef up water pollution enforcement and boost efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s diminished oyster population.
“When you look at the many topics and the many places where we saw improvements in this legislature,” said Josh Kurtz, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director, “it was a very strong session.”
The outpouring of legislation this year was a relief for activists, who saw many of the bills they backed founder in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic cut the Assembly session short, and again in 2021, when pandemic precautions kept the Assembly operating in virtual mode, limiting opportunities to meet with legislators.
This year brought a growing and more diverse coalition of supporters to Annapolis to press for environmental causes and voice mounting frustration with inaction over chronic and critical issues like pollution enforcement and climate change.
The most significant environmental bill to pass this year was the Climate Solutions Now Act, an omnibus measure that advocates say has restored Maryland to the top rank of states addressing global climate change and its impacts. The law calls for a 60% reduction in climate-warming carbon emissions by 2031, a near-term target unmatched by any other state, and net-zero emissions by 2045.
“We have just put a stake in the ground that says we are going to lead on climate [and] greenhouse gas reduction goals in the country,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
The measure’s 100-plus pages spell out a variety of initiatives to work toward those goals, notably a requirement that large existing buildings reduce carbon emissions by improving their energy efficiency. By 2030, all state facilities would have to get at least 75% of their electricity from low– or zero-carbon sources. The state also must electrify its fleet of cars by 2031 and light-duty trucks by 2036.
The law pushes local school boards to electrify their bus fleets, offering a pilot financing scheme through partnerships with utilities while prohibiting the purchase of diesel– or gas-fueled buses after 2024.
Under another provision, lawmakers established a “climate corps” for youths and young adults to work on climate mitigation projects. They also established a $5 million fund for climate projects and directed 40% of it to be spent in low– to moderate-income neighborhoods — an attempt to tackle inequities in how climate change is both felt and addressed.
Similar but less comprehensive climate change legislation had fallen short in each of the last two years. This measure passed the Democrat-dominated House and Senate by wide margins, but only after some of its most controversial features were cut or watered down so that it would get to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in time to override his expected veto.
Hogan had blasted the bill before it passed either chamber as a “reckless and controversial energy tax.” But once the amended bill landed on his desk, he decided to let it become law without his signature, adding that despite his disappointment with what he saw as politically motivated legislation, he was encouraged by some of the changes in it.
One of the largest of those changes was dropping a requirement that all new buildings of a certain size built in the state be all-electric. The state’s Climate Change Commission had recommended such a transition, noting the large contribution of greenhouse gas emissions from heating and cooling buildings. But that provision drew intense opposition from real estate interests, the natural gas industry, utilities, and some labor groups. Yielding to the pushback, lawmakers opted instead for a 15-month study of the feasibility of transitioning to an all-electric building code.
Other changes that bothered climate activists included recognizing nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source and the removal of language giving permission to localities to go beyond state law in requiring emission reductions from buildings. Montgomery County is currently considering such a law.
Victoria Venable, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said her group’s members were “incredibly disappointed” by the removal of the provisions dealing with electrifying buildings. But even with that and other weakening changes, she called the overall bill a “vital step forward.”
“Does it get us 100 percent there?” asked the conservation league’s Coble. “No, of course not, there is much work ahead … but we believe this bill really builds a foundation from which the state can move forward.”
Reducing pollution inequities
One of the bills to pass this year takes a step toward addressing longstanding complaints that polluting facilities tend to be concentrated in low-income communities of color. It requires applicants for air and water pollution permits to disclose existing pollution sources in the vicinity and to provide that information to affected communities early in the permitting process.
Advocates have tried without success for years to get lawmakers to require regulators to base permitting decisions on the cumulative impact of a proposed pollution source on top of existing ones. This bill gives communities a heads-up in time to speak out, but “does not dictate any outcomes,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. ‘It is just providing greater public notice and awareness early in the [permitting] process.”
Spurred by some glaring enforcement miscues in the past year, lawmakers passed legislation requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment to increase inspections of facilities that discharge wastewater to the state’s rivers and streams. The legislation, which like the climate bill became law without Hogan’s signature, also requires penalties for noncompliance and directs regulators to update dozens of so-called “zombie” permits that have allowed facilities to continue operating for years with outdated treatment requirements.
The bill was put in after news broke of deteriorating conditions at the state’s two largest wastewater treatment plants in Baltimore, plus illegal discharges at the Valley Proteins poultry-rendering plant on the Eastern Shore, which has been operating on a permit that hasn’t been updated since 2006.
Other environmental measures
Rebuilding oyster populations: Lawmakers acted to boost Maryland’s oyster restoration efforts by increasing hatchery capacity, reforming oyster shell recycling programs, surveying the Bay bottom for additional sources of shells and researching the use of materials other than shell for building oyster reefs. The legislation also called for focusing on reviving oyster populations in Eastern Bay, with $2 million a year to be divided equally between rebuilding habitat for the wild fishery and new reefs in sanctuaries. In past years, Hogan has pushed back against what he saw as unwarranted legislative meddling in fisheries management. He allowed this measure, which drew on recommendations from the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission, to become law without his signature.
Boosting renewable energy: Lawmakers passed legislation to expand the development of “community solar” projects that sell subscriptions for moderate-size solar installations to households or businesses, which then receive credit on their power bills for their share of the electricity generated. Another bill sets up a grant program to fund “resiliency hubs” where solar panels and batteries would help low– and moderate-income households weather power outages. Another bill reinstated tax credits for buying electric vehicles.
Toxic contaminants: Legislators banned the sale of rugs and paper-based food packaging that contain PFAS, a group of highly persistent chemicals widely used for their stain– and water-resistant traits. The bill also bars the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS, which has led to the contamination of groundwater, streams and drinking water wells near military bases, airports and fire training facilities. Similar legislation had failed last year, but this year it passed unanimously, a turnaround that Emily Scarr of Maryland’s Public Interest Research Group attributed in part to strong support from firefighters concerned about their own health dealing with PFAS-laden foam. Another bill prohibits the sale of driveway sealants made from coal tar, which has been linked to stream and fish contamination.
Patuxent River: Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman has regained his longtime seat on the Patuxent River Commission, which oversees the health of the only major Bay tributary totally within Maryland. Lawmakers acted to reinstate him and expand the commission after a Hogan administration shake-up that replaced Tutman and another veteran member. They had sparred with state planning staff as they pushed the panel to speak out against development projects that they believed would harm water quality in the 110-mile river.
Addressing park needs: Lawmakers voted to significantly increase funding for the development, maintenance and staffing of state parks, which have suffered for years from overcrowding and failing infrastructure. The bill, dubbed the Great Maryland Outdoors Act, also boosts funding for farm and rural land preservation.
Growing urban agriculture: New legislation will offer grants and technical assistance to urban farmers, who often face challenges accessing affordable water and energy for raising and marketing their food.
Old-growth forests: Lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits logging patches of public woodlands that are 100 years old or more, but only after limiting its protection to state parks and wildlife management areas.
Bills that didn’t make it
Not every environmental cause succeeded. A proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee Marylanders the right to a “healthful and sustainable environment” failed for the fourth year in a row to get out of committee.
Another repeat proposal to strip clean-energy subsidies for waste incineration died as well. A bill that would have committed Maryland to preserving 30% of its land from development by decade’s end and 40% by 2040 likewise stalled in committee. Other bills that foundered were aimed at curbing the use of single-use plastic, boosting recycling and getting manufacturers to take responsibility for the waste their products generate.
Josh Tulkin, Maryland Sierra Club’s director, said environmental advocates were especially frustrated by the failure of the environmental rights amendment. Despite a growing and diverse group of supporters backing the measure, industry groups scored points with legislators by warning the amendment’s language was so broad it could unleash a flood of litigation.
“There’s some concern about leaving too much of this up to the courts,” Tulkin said, “but I think there’s also a clarity that we need to find some way to codify these rights.”
Even so, Tulkin and other advocates said they were heartened by the number of green bills that did pass this year. To protect those gains and push for more, he said, environmental activists need to impress on voters the benefits of new legislation like the climate bill to see that sympathetic lawmakers are re-elected in this year’s elections.
This article was oringally published on BayJournal.com.