Will It Be ‘Wait Till Next Year’ for Clean Energy Bill?

The planet is burning up. Solar industry jobs in Maryland are down.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act, proponents of the measure and the bill’s chief sponsor testified before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, addresses both problems.

“Either one of those arguments on their own, in my opinion, should carry the bill,” Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), the committee’s vice chair, told his colleagues. “But combined, the two make it a no-brainer.”

Yet despite that line of reasoning – and a long line of supporters on hand to testify in favor of the bill Tuesday, from business and the environmental world – the measure is by no means a sure thing. Privately – and in some cases even publicly – people who are following the legislation closely believe it is more than likely to run aground at some point during this General Assembly session.

Understanding why says something about the way Annapolis works.

This is not to suggest that the legislation, which would require Maryland utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and is the top priority this session for environmental groups, is completely doomed or that it won’t pass eventually – in fact, its passage is probably inevitable. Just not this year.

Here are a few reasons why:

— Legislative leaders are generally cautious. With energetic and progressive freshmen classes in both chambers, top-ranking lawmakers have embraced an unusually activist and liberal agenda, especially for the first year of a legislative term.

But there’s probably only so much the market can bear. A more robust Renewable Portfolio Standard, as it is known, would mean higher electric bills for consumers – $1.51 per month more on average in Feldman’s view, more in the opinion of some opponents. That automatically creates a flashing yellow light for certain lawmakers.

— Utility rules and regulations are complex and arcane. The 11-member Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over such matters in the Senate, has four freshman members (though three previously served in the House). The 22-member House Economic Matters Committee, the rough equivalent to Finance in the lower chamber, has four freshmen members. Other members are new to these panels, even if they’re not new to the legislature.

So a lot of getting up to speed is required.

Of course, state energy policy is one of the most heavily lobbied issues in Annapolis. That leaves plenty of opportunity for special interests and their hired guns to reach out to lawmakers – newbies and veterans alike – and attempt to influence them. That can make policymaking doubly cumbersome and confusing, as lawmakers weigh competing interests and storylines.

— A recently released interim study by something called the Power Plant Research Program, which is housed within the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The PPRP released a 99-page report last month detailing the progress of the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard – which has existed since 2004 and currently requires that utilities get one-quarter of their electric supply from renewables by 2020 – and looking ahead to what’s feasible in the future.

The interim study was supposed to be delivered last December but arrived two months late. The final version is due next Dec. 1.

The interim report, which is as dense as any non-expert would expect it to be, has something for people who want to expand the RPS, and something for people who’d like to apply the brakes.

But the fact that it was ordered up by legislation that originated two years ago in the Economic Matters Committee means something. People who would like to slow-walk the clean energy legislation – in government and in the energy world – cite the pending final study as a reason to delay. That argument appeals to some members of the Economic Committee as well.

“There has been some concern expressed to me by more than a few legislators and interested stakeholders that we paid $1 million for a study, so we may want to wait for it to be completed,” Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), the Economic Matters chairman, said in an interview Tuesday.

That may explain why a plea in recent days from 10 Maryland climate scientists to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act went directly to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) initially, and not to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) or other legislative leaders.

— Uncertainty about where Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) stands. Hogan vetoed the last RPS bill, but the legislature overrode him. Hogan in his first term was careful to avoid tax increases or do anything that could even be construed as raising a fee or increasing a consumer’s utility bill. But will that change in a second term? Do Hogan’s flirtations with a possible presidential bid change the calculus at all?

In December, Hogan co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), arguing that the responsibility for fighting climate change begins with the states — a fact Feldman brought up as he introduced his legislation to his colleagues Tuesday.

Not all of this backdrop came into play at the Senate hearing Tuesday. Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County), the Finance Committee chair, moved swiftly through dozens of witnesses, limiting their testimony to one minute each. At one point, to the surprise of her colleagues and stakeholders, she suggested that the committee set up a workgroup to examine the more technical aspects of Feldman’s legislation; whether or not that happens is an open question.

Climate advocates testified that two recent reports, one by the United Nations, one by the Trump administration (despite the president’s skepticism that humans are contributing to the warming of the planet) add a new immediacy to the push for the clean energy bill. If action isn’t taken to cool the planet by 2055, they said, humans will face serious consequences.

“The science says we can truly avoid catastrophic climate change, but we have to act,” said Donald Boesch, the former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who was the lead author of the scientists’ letter to Busch.

The economic peril to the renewable energy industry of not acting – and the opportunity that exists if the RPS is expanded – was also emphasized again and again.

“We would not have a solar industry if not for the RPS,” said Robert J. Garagiola, a lobbyist for clean energy companies.

Only half a dozen opponents testified.

Thomas Dennison, government affairs director for the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, said the rural utility was worried about the costs of a more stringent RPS and about the challenges of complying with the need to find add more renewables into its energy mix.

Glen Thomas, president of PJM Power Providers Group, a non-profit organization made up of power providers with the mission of promoting competitive wholesale electricity markets, said the legislation would benefit certain forms of energy at the expense of others.

“We really do not like it when we see out-of-market actions take hold,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Economic Matters Committee will hear the legislation on Friday. The fact that there is some reluctance in the House to embrace it doesn’t mean the advocates won’t get a fair hearing, Davis vowed.

“I don’t want to prejudice in any way what the members want to do,” he said.

The fact that embattled Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford), who was censured by her colleagues last week for uttering a racial epithet, is the lead House sponsor of the legislation does not appear to be an issue. While Lisanti has not been in Annapolis during the past three workdays despite her vow to remain on the job, Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), an early sponsor of the bill and a member of the Economic Matters Committee, is prepared to present it to her colleagues.

Davis predicted the bill will pass in the near future.

“It’s going to happen this term,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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