By Josh Kurtz
In a major blow to Maryland environmentalists and their allies in the General Assembly, a House Economic Matters subcommittee voted against a bill Wednesday that would have expanded the state’s renewable energy mandate.
The panel’s Public Utilities Subcommittee voted down the measure, HB 1453. The subcommittee chairwoman, Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles), was among those who voted for an “unfavorable” motion on the bill. The full committee chairman, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) abstained. On the subcommittee, only Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), voted against the unfavorable motion.
The bill called for boosting the state’s renewable energy portfolio to 50 percent by 2030. Currently the state has a mandate to use 25 percent renewable electricity by 2020.
House Majority Leader C. William Frick (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor, said Wednesday night he was withdrawing the bill before a full vote of the Economic Matters Committee.
At the same time, HB 878, a bill sponsored by Del. A. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery) calling for the state to reach 100 percent renewable energy use by 2040, was also withdrawn Wednesday.
The late afternoon committee vote came on a busy day on the energy policy front in the state capital.
Earlier in the day, five women protesting a proposed natural gas pipeline through Western Maryland were arrested outside the State House after blocking the front entrance for about two hours.
They were opposing TransCanada’s Potomac Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania through a small section of Western Maryland, near Hancock, and underneath the Potomac River to West Virginia. The project awaits a permit from the Maryland Department of Environment before going before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for final approval.
The five women described themselves as parents and grandparents and carried pictures of their children and grandchildren as they stood in front of the State House door.
“Here’s what keeps me awake at night: wondering what the world will look like when my children and then my grandchildren reach my age,” Liz Feighner of Laurel, one of the women who was arrested, said in a statement provided by the group Chesapeake Climate Action. “We need to stop fooling ourselves that fracked gas is a bridge fuel. We are out of time for half measures.”
Nick Cavey, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which oversees the Maryland Capitol Police, said in an email to Maryland Matters that the protesters “were peacefully removed” from the State House grounds and that no formal charges were filed against them.
The pipeline proposal has sparked spirited opposition in Maryland and Washington, D.C. – and in portions of West Virginia. But it has largely remained a regional issue.
Yet that might be changing. There is evidence that some of the national environmental groups that waged high-profile and protracted campaigns against the proposed Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are now turning their attention to Maryland.
Eleven national environmental leaders penned a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Wednesday urging him to reject the proposed pipeline.
In the letter, the greens praised Hogan for banning fracking in Maryland last year and for committing the state to meeting the goals of the international Paris Climate Accord – even though President Trump has moved to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. But they suggested that with other policy decisions, Hogan appears to be moving away from these environmental protections.
“If fracking is bad for Maryland, why is it okay to allow TransCanada to pipe the gas through your state from harmed communities in Pennsylvania?” the environmental leaders wrote. “And if the Paris Climate Accord is really important to you, why incentivize the combustion of fracked gas when life-cycle methane leakage creates an impact on the atmosphere at least as bad as coal – if not worse?”
The letter’s signatories included Bill McKibben, author and founder of the group 350.org; Josh Fox, a filmmaker who has made documentaries about fracking; Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth; RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote; and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus.
Whether Western Maryland is about to become the new ground zero in the environmental movement’s fight against oil and gas pipelines is very much an open question. At 3.5 miles, the Potomac Pipeline proposal hardly compares to more high-profile projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. But the yearslong national fight over KXL informs the debate over the Potomac project.
Meanwhile, clean energy activists were licking their wounds Wednesday night over the defeat of the 50 percent renewables bill, which had support from more than 660 faith groups, environmental organizations, unions and civic leaders. But many greens believed the process for getting it passed, so soon after the 25 percent renewables standard went into effect, would take more than one legislative session.
“We really are going to make an election issue out of this bill in order to pass it next year,” said Jamie DeMarco, campaign manager for the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Initiative.
The environmental groups have been trying to get commitments from gubernatorial candidates to support the 50 percent renewables measure – and plan to release a list of those who have pledged to do so on Thursday afternoon.
William F. Zorzi contributed to this report.