It’s a rare day that Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles finds himself happy to be around garbage, but this was one of those days.
The occasion was an annual recycled-art competition that MDE hosts at its headquarters in the historic and quirky Montgomery Park office building in South Baltimore. Sixty high school students from across the state were there in late November with their artworks, fashioned from old milk jugs, soda cans, water bottles, rags, garbage bags and more.
Grumbles, who despite the last name is usually pretty mellow in public, was almost giddy.
“I am all smiles,” Grumbles said as he and Maryland first lady Yumi Hogan admired a fox sculpture adorned with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers. “This is a wonderful, wonderful event, one of the best days of the year for us. I look around the room, and I see artists and environmentalists converging.”
Yumi Hogan, an artist and instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art who incorporates nature into most of her work, regarded all the projects with a discerning eye – more than the casual glances a typical politician’s spouse might offer.
“This event is important to me,” she told the audience, “because it ties into a big part of my husband’s administration — protecting the environment.”
That’s where Ben Grumbles comes in.
It is nearly impossible to succeed at the highest levels of Maryland politics without constructing a strong record on the environment. Green groups had some trepidation about Gov. Larry Hogan (R) when he won in an upset in 2014; environmental groups cast their lot with then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) over Hogan, a real estate developer who had grown up and worked around politics but had never held public office.
As soon as he was elected to succeed former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who had compiled a strong environmental record of his own and talked about making the nation carbon-free during his 2016 presidential campaign, Hogan, a major critic of O’Malley’s, declared that the state was “open for business.” Environmentalists fretted about what that meant.
Today, Grumbles acknowledges that the state is open for business — “the greener the better,” he says.
‘Skilled at bringing people together’
The Maryland secretary of the environment’s personal green credentials are impeccable. But so, too, are his consensus-building skills and ability to walk a fine line between his own environmentalist instincts and the diverse priorities of the mostly Republican bosses he’s had throughout his career — now, working for Hogan; as water chief at the Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration; as Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director under then-Gov. Jan Brewer (R); and as a congressional committee staffer.
“He’s so skilled at bringing people together,” said Katie Dykes, a commissioner at the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, who has collaborated with Grumbles on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an alliance of nine Northeastern states that works to target emissions from the power sector. “He’s a great listener. The secret sauce for RGGI’s success is relationships and mutual respect. Ben has all that.”
While Maryland environmentalists have had their occasional battles with Hogan — he vetoed legislation in 2016 to expand the state’s renewable fuel standard and provide extra incentives for clean energy jobs, which the Democratic-led General Assembly overrode this year — most have been pleasantly surprised. And most give credit to Grumbles, 56, for serving as the lead ambassador from the Hogan administration to green leaders.
“Ben Grumbles is a climate activist,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “He cares about the issue, and he convinced environmental leaders like me that he’s effective.”
Hogan has embraced emissions reduction goals — though not as aggressively as some greens would like — and has provided robust funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs. He stunned most environmental leaders — and angered some fellow Republicans and many business groups — when he announced his support this year for a bill banning fracking in Maryland, which is now the law. Behind the scenes, Grumbles was a major proponent of the fracking ban.
Democratic leaders have, almost reflexively, hit Hogan for not speaking out forcefully about certain Trump administration policies, including on the environment. When President Trump proposed cutting $68 million from the federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund, a Maryland Democratic Party spokesman taunted, “One thing is clear — by refusing to stand up to Trump, Hogan is putting partisan support for Republicans in Washington ahead of his own campaign promises.”
As the 2018 election approaches, Democrats seeking to oust Hogan have made it clear that they will try to tie him to Trump at every turn. While Hogan is personally popular, Trump’s favorable rating in Maryland was just 24 percent in the most recent public poll, released last week, and he could imperil Hogan’s bid for a second term.
State Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), a hero to Maryland environmentalists who has an uneasy relationship with the governor, has been among the most aggressive attorneys general in the country when it comes to going to court to attempt to block Trump initiatives.
Grumbles acknowledges the politics but tries to ignore them, saying he is “inclined to be skeptical of extreme positions” and feels policymakers should “work to find the middle temperament to achieve lasting results.”
That’s a theme Hogan often returns to – though he can be far more acerbic than his environment chief.
“For me personally, I thrive on collaboration and listening to different views and think of ways of trying to accelerate environmental progress,” Grumbles says. “There are going to be disagreements about tactics.”
‘I have faith in the Clean Water Act’
During a 45-minute interview, Grumbles became most animated when he was talking about the crumbling Conowingo Dam along the Susquehanna River, which is allowing sediment and nutrients to flow into the Chesapeake Bay. If the hydroelectric power dam fails, an environmental catastrophe could follow.
Grumbles said the troubles at the dam were “a blind spot” to federal and state officials when they were crafting a long-term pollution diet for the bay. But in typical fashion, he said he was working with federal officials and policymakers from Maryland and upriver in New York and Pennsylvania to find a solution.
Asked whether he is confident that the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will protect the air, land and water, Grumbles was circumspect, though he was quick to say that he knows and respects several career officials at the agency, as well as Cosmo Servidio, the new EPA administrator for Region 3 who is the former director of environmental affairs for the suburban Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority in Pennsylvania.
“I have faith in the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the federal laws and state laws that are on the books,” he said, adding that the Trump agenda “underscores our view that now more than ever, the states really need to show leadership.”
Grumbles will be putting those collaborative abilities to good use as the new chairman of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It’s a time for him personally – and for the Hogan administration, and for Maryland more broadly – to shine.
RGGI takes in every state on the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Maryland — with the exception of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The fragile alliance includes states with diverse energy portfolios and governors of every political persuasion: a bombastic Republican in the image of Trump, Maine Gov. Paul LePage; a nationally ambitious liberal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D); moderate Republicans like Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; and more. The RGGI states currently have a 5-4 GOP majority.
Beyond competing political agendas, RGGI demands compromise by its very nature. It includes state utility regulators and environmental officials, who themselves represent a “balance of the energy sector and the political sector and the climate sector,” Grumbles said. A professional staff working in Lower Manhattan provides support.
“RGGI is a dynamic entity that has changing players and participants,” he said. “We’re going to continue to find the balance between the environment and the economy. The strength of RGGI is it has a proven record of success.”
As the Trump administration pulls away from international climate commitments, state and local efforts to fight carbon emissions become more important — and RGGI’s role is magnified. Grumbles said he attended the United Nations climate conference for the first time last month for “a convergence of reasons” — to reiterate RGGI’s commitment to international goals, to represent Maryland’s interests and steps the state is taking to lessen its carbon footprint, and to stand in solidarity with the 10 other states that sent representatives.
Grumbles was an integral part of negotiations this year for the RGGI states to lower their collective carbon emissions, just as he will be a major player as RGGI works to achieve its next goals: integrating New Jersey back into the alliance — outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) pulled the state out of the alliance in 2011 — and negotiating the possible entry of Virginia. The commonwealth would be an especially significant new member, as a Southern state with a heavy coal portfolio.
Grumbles said the re-entry of New Jersey should be easy to achieve, because Gov.-elect Phil Murphy (D) has pledged to do so and the mechanism already exists for the state to be in the regional carbon program. In Virginia, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) plans to follow through on an executive order by departing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to explore the possibility of the state joining an existing cap-and-trade program.
Grumbles said he is anticipating “intense discussions with Virginia,” but that even if the commonwealth doesn’t formally enter RGGI, it is poised to commit to meeting RGGI’s climate goals. McAuliffe was one of the officials Grumbles crossed paths with at the climate confab in Bonn, Germany.
“Either way, the environment wins,” he said.
Grumbles is expected to be a major player in RGGI’s discussions with Virginia, because he already has experience working with the officials in the Old Dominion State on issues of mutual interest, like the Chesapeake Bay and regional transportation and development challenges.
“I think having these regional relationships is always very valuable to a productive dialogue,” said Dykes, the Connecticut regulator.
Grumbles said that, broadly, his goal for his year as RGGI chairman is to reaffirm the states’ commitment to fighting climate change and meeting agreed-upon emissions targets. More specific goals, he said, will be hammered out “through good, honest, bipartisan and nonpartisan discussion.”