Senators Consider Sweeping Climate Bill — And More Modest Measures

Flooding on the Clara Barton Parkway in Montgomery County in July 2019. Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service photo.

There are many ways to skin a cat and, in the General Assembly, there appear to be many ways to confront the climate crisis.

On Thursday, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held hearings on eight bills designed to address the ravages of climate change and make Maryland communities safer and more resilient.

One bill, the sweeping Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, would tackle myriad aspects of climate change and lays out ambitious goals for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But other measures speak to the challenges of global warming on the edges or in incremental ways.

What emerged after a full day of virtual hearings is that there is broad, if not unanimous, consensus on the Senate panel that climate change is a pressing problem that needs to be addressed.

What’s less clear is whether, in a legislative session that will be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty, there is the political will and attention span to make dramatic changes to the state’s environmental laws this year.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs panel, asked his colleagues Thursday to follow President Biden’s recent exhortation to think big when addressing climate change.

“This is not the time for small measures,” he said.

Pinsky noted that there is a trend in Maryland away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy use — but not necessarily because of any political or legislative action.

“We have had some reductions in Maryland, but the overwhelming reductions have been through market changes — not through changes in behavior,” he said.

Pinsky is the lead Senate sponsor of the Climate Solutions Now bill and he opened the hearing on it by showing pictures of dramatic flooding in Annapolis, Cambridge, Ellicott City and along U.S. 50 in Prince George’s County, and of the aftermath of wildfires in California.

The bill would require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% and plant 5 million trees by 2030. The measure would put Maryland on a track towards achieving net-zero statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, and it invests extra resources in communities that have been disproportionately hit by climate change and environmental degradation. At least 10% of the 5 million trees to be planted within the next decade would be placed in underserved urban areas. The bill lays out rules that would bolster the state’s ability to confront environmental justice challenges, and the state government’s own vehicle fleet to generate net-zero emissions by 2030. The bill also lays out stringent energy efficiency measures for building construction.

“It will improve our public health, it will reduce racial disparities and injustice and it will improve our economy,” said Jamie DeMarco, federal and Maryland policy director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, put it more succinctly: “This bill is needed now in the state of Maryland,” he said.

Several interest groups testified in favor of Pinsky’s legislation, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, SEIU Local 1199, the NAACP, and AIA Maryland, a professional association of architects.

Only one organization testified against the measure — but only tentatively. Lisa May, representing Maryland Realtors, said the group supported many of the goals of the legislation, but worried that some of the energy efficiency standards could prove to be too onerous in the short term — especially as the construction industry struggles to recover from the economic fallout of COVID-19.

She said Realtors objected to the suggestion that they were seeking an “unfavorable” vote on the measure, calling that characterization “a blunt instrument.”

And so it went through the afternoon. When there were objections to climate bills, they were more for specific provisions that might impact the economic stability of an industry, rather than wholescale objections to the intent of the legislation.

Beyond the Climate Solutions Now bill, the committee also considered:

Senate Bill 62, introduced by Sens. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard) and Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), which would create the position of Chief Resilience Officer within the Maryland Emergency Management Agency

SB 319, also by Hester and Elfreth, which would expand the purpose of the state’s clean energy loan program to include water efficiency projects, environmental remediation projects intended to remove environmental or health hazards, and resiliency projects.

SB 137, by Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), which would prohibit the Maryland Transit Administration from purchasing buses for the state fleet that are not zero-emission, beginning in Fiscal Year 2023.

SB 119, by Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard) and Elfreth, which would establish the Clean Water Commerce Fund, which would be used to reduce pollution in Maryland waterways.

SB 195, by Elfreth and Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), which would would require Maryland to switch to safer alternatives in fire fighting foam and stop the use of so-called PFAS chemicals in food packaging, rugs and carpets. It would also restrict the mass disposal of these chemicals.

SB 70, by Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s), which would require the state to establish uniform standards for mold assessment and remediation. Advocates consider this a climate bill because hotter and wetter conditions have exacerbated mold problems in public housing and other dwellings.

SB 68, by Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), which would rename the Maryland Emergency Management Agency the Maryland Department of Emergency Management and make it a cabinet agency, rather than a part of the state Military Department. While this is not strictly a climate bill, Lam said the measure would enable the state’s secretary of Emergency Management to plan for climate disasters in ways that the state’s military agency is not able to.

All of the bills the Senate committee considered Thursday have also been introduced in the House — except for Lam’s emergency management legislation.

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