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Energy & Environment

Hogan Clean Energy Plan Meets Skeptics in Senate

Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) was the chief sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. File photo

It was clear throughout the 2019 General Assembly session that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) wasn’t crazy about the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a massive piece of legislation to boost the state’s renewable energy mandates.

Even though Hogan, in contrast to many national Republican leaders, has acknowledged the dangers posed by climate change and has been generally supportive of environmental initiatives, he had vetoed similar legislation a few years earlier. He was uncomfortable with certain mandates in that measure and didn’t like the fact that it would result in modestly higher utility bills for most consumers.

Instead of vetoing the 2019 bill — which went through several tortuous twists and turns before emerging from the legislature — Hogan let the measure become law without his signature. But he claimed he could do better and promised to introduce his own clean energy legislation in 2020 –relishing the prospect of attempting to one-up the legislature.

The result is the Clean and Renewable Energy Standard (CARES), a bill that Hogan says would lead to a 100% clean and renewable energy portfolio by 2040 in Maryland. But the legislation has its share of critics, and on Tuesday they aired their views in the Senate Finance Committee, which did a substantial amount of the heavy lifting on the Clean Energy Jobs Act a year ago.

The 90-minute hearing began with Hogan administration representatives extolling the governor’s plan.

Mathew Palmer, the governor’s deputy legislative officer, called it “a better way, a more comprehensive way, to move forward.”

“This bill will revolutionize the way Maryland builds and grows renewable energy in the future,” Palmer said.

Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the Environment, frequently asserted that the bill is a “market-based, balanced approach” to developing and utilizing clean energy.

But most of the testimony came from critics.

Environmentalists and some lawmakers don’t like the bill because it still envisions an energy portfolio that relies on fossil fuels for several years.

“There’s no mention of a plan to ultimately phase out coal-fired power plants in the state, of which we still have six,” said Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), the committee vice chairman and chief Senate sponsor of last year’s energy legislation.

Grumbles replied that “the marketplace is absolutely going to move to the phase-out of those coal plants.”

(Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would lay out a timetable to shutter the state’s six coal plants and support impacted workers with a transition plan. They’ll have hearings later in the session.)

Some environmental groups do not like the Hogan bill’s heavy reliance on nuclear power to meet clean energy goals. Senate Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) wondered whether spent nuclear fuel rods can be stored safely and withstand earthquakes.

“We’re messing up the planet so fast, we might have earthquakes anywhere,” she said.

“It is a very safe technology,” replied Mary Beth Tung, director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Operators of the state’s two waste-to-energy incinerators do not like the fact that Hogan’s proposal would cut state subsidies for their plants. Business, labor and government officials who are trying to find a new tenant for the shuttered paper mill in Luke are wary of the fact that the bill would eliminate a subsidy for the production of black liquor, a fuel that’s a by-product of paper production.

And some critics have cast a skeptical eye on Hogan’s proposal’s reliance on energy technologies that are still far from hitting the commercial market: carbon capture and sequestration technology, and modular nuclear reactors, which operate on a dramatically smaller scale than traditional nuclear power plants.

Steven Hershkowitz, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, was withering in his assessment of the legislation, calling it “clever accounting” and “clever PR.”

“It is clear that it is subsidizing polluters,” he told senators. “Please reject this legislation as the distraction that it is.”

During his remarks, Grumbles encouraged lawmakers to work with administration officials to improve upon the bill.

“We look forward to input, potential amendments, improvements, suggestions,” he said.

But it isn’t clear whether the Hogan administration intends to follow up on Grumbles’ entreaty. Lawmakers frequently complain that the administration prefers laying out a position rather than entering into heavy negotiations with the legislature.

What’s more, legislative leaders may be just as inclined to see how the Clean Energy Jobs Act progresses over the next couple of years than spending a lot of time piecing together another bill on clean energy standards.

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Hogan Clean Energy Plan Meets Skeptics in Senate