Senators Cast Doubts on Hogan Administration Climate Plan

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles defends the Hogan administration's climate mitigation plan at a Senate hearing Thursday. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Senators clashed with Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles Thursday over the Hogan administration’s blueprint to fight climate change.

During a hearing in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, lawmakers questioned whether a draft plan would enable Maryland to achieve a 44% reduction of emissions from 2006 levels by 2030.

Specifically, senators pressed Grumbles on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s desire to widen two interstate highways, and wondered whether the administration was adequately supportive of mass transit and offshore wind.

“When you build more lanes, it means more cars will come,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the committee chairman.

Senators also criticized Grumbles for completing the climate mitigation proposal last fall, 10 months later than a deadline mandated by the legislature.

Grumbles defended the administration, and said the extra time was helpful for officials to see how the legislature crafted the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a measure to boost the state’s renewable energy mandates for electric utilities, which became law without the Republican governor’s signature. Grumbles said it allowed time for Hogan to draft his own clean energy proposal, which will be on the docket this legislative session, and also enabled more stakeholders to weigh in.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is holding webinars and public meetings on the draft proposal throughout the year, before refining and finalizing the plan.

“We recognize that we have to get to deep decarbonization and look beyond 2030,” Grumbles said.

The environmental chief said the state can reduce carbon by targeting motor vehicles, the energy industry, the building sector, and land management, and that ambitious goals can be achieved while having “a net positive impact on jobs and the economy.”

The state also participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading program involving several Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

But Pinsky questioned whether Grumbles would stand by the argument made by Hogan and state transportation officials that widening Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Grumbles said there were times when highway expansion would lower emissions, because moving cars emit less carbon than idling vehicles stuck in traffic.

Pinsky and other senators also noted that the Hogan administration has no new transit projects in the pipeline, killed the proposed Red Line project in Baltimore, and has provided no funding for proposed light rail in Southern Maryland, and a planned rapid bus route in Montgomery County.

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), who has blasted the Hogan administration for failing to embrace the Southern Maryland transit proposal — and earned a rebuke from the governor at a budget news conference this week — said global warming is just one argument in favor of the project.

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“It’s not just climate change, it’s moving working people every day,” he said.

But Grumbles countered that the Hogan administration is bringing the Purple Line project in the Washington, D.C., suburbs to fruition, and has also provided a steady funding stream for the Washington area Metro system.

“That exists, No. 1,” Pinsky said of the Metro funding. “And that was a legislative initiative, as I recall.”

Overall, Pinsky said the Hogan climate plan had “very vague” solutions that often amounted to “kicking the can” down the road and requiring future administrations to act.

“I would respectfully say that I don’t agree with your characterization in any way, shape or form,” Grumbles replied. “This plan is very detailed.”

Wind energy debate, again

Then Pinsky pressed Grumbles on the state’s commitment to offshore wind energy.

The conversation over offshore wind comes has the fate of two high-profile wind energy projects off the coast of Ocean City remain up in the air.

In 2013, state lawmakers and then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) authorized offshore wind projects. in 2016, the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, authorized two offshore projects in federal waters several miles off the coast of Ocean City.

That decision that unanimous decision caught many stakeholders by surprise. They thought the PSC, then consisting of O’Malley and Hogan appointees, would select one project at most.

But in subsequent years, opposition to the projects has grown fierce in Ocean City. The resort town hired Bruce C. Bereano, one of the most successful and resourceful lobbyists in the state — and someone who boasts of his close relationship with Hogan — to help kill the projects or at least move them farther offshore.

More recently, foes of the projects have renewed hope because the two wind developers have notified the PSC that the wind turbines will be bigger — and at least 200 feet higher — than originally proposed, to reflect changes in the industry and state-of-the-art technology. This prompted the Maryland Energy Administration — which originally endorsed one of the two wind energy projects, back in 2016 — to request that the PSC hold a hearing to discuss the developers’ push for bigger turbines.

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That hearing has been scheduled for Saturday in Ocean City. The PSC, now consisting solely of Hogan appointees, has emphasized that the hearing is only to consider the request for bigger towers — and not any aspect of the projects. But opponents are expected to make full-blown arguments against them anyway, expressing fears that the turbines could ruin ocean views and vacation-goers’ experience.

The town of Ocean City late last year filed a brief with the PSC on the turbines signed by attorney Timothy F. Maloney, one of Hogan’s best friends — who does not routinely practice utility law.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore), who represents Ocean City, said the town has become alarmed by the proposed “dramatic increases” in the turbines’ size.

Pinsky repeatedly asked whether the state would submit testimony at Saturday’s PSC hearing in favor of the enlarged wind installations. Renewable energy advocates fear that Maryland is already falling behind neighboring states in the development wind energy.

Grumbles said the state would not be submitting any such testimony — and said he was unaware of when the hearing would be taking place. He sought to reassure lawmakers: “Offshore wind plays a very important role in our renewable and clean energy strategies.”

But, he added, “local impacts matter.”

That stance did not satisfy Pinsky.

“Big quiet is an action,” he said.

Click here for a list of scheduled “public engagements” on the administration’s climate plan.

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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.