Bills Would Require State Agencies to Consider Climate Change in Key Decisions and Operations

Renewable Energy
Smokestacks on a cloudy day. acilo/iStock photo.

As President Biden moves fast on climate change, with a slew of executive orders in his first weeks in office, Maryland lawmakers are considering bills to ensure that various state agencies and local governments are considering climate change in their key decisions.

“It’s great to see the Biden administration moving quickly to make up for lost time, but we know that work won’t be successful if it’s just left to federal government alone, and leaders at all levels have the responsibility to protect our environment for this generation and the next,” Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. (D) said during a press conference Wednesday morning.

Olszewski was speaking in favor of House Bill 503, which is sponsored in the House by Del. Patrick Young (D) and in the Senate by Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D) — both of whom happen to be the leaders of their respective Baltimore County delegations. The bill would establish an Office on Climate Change within the governor’s office, using the governor’s existing funds, as a way to centralize state efforts to combat climate change.

More specifically, the office would be tasked with implementing the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, which is chaired by Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles and mandated to advise the governor and General Assembly on ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who is part of the commission, and some environmental advocates have previously criticized the commission’s 2020 annual report for lacking concrete actions in its recommendations. Olszewski echoed these concerns.

“There are many good ideas and recommendations that have been put forward as a result of [the Maryland Commission on Climate Change],” Olszewski told the House Environment and Transportation Committee Wednesday. However, “there isn’t a centralized group in the governor’s office to coordinate efforts across the state.”

Young’s measure would ensure that the commission’s recommendations have more teeth by requiring the governor’s office to work with local governments to help develop local climate change plans.

Furthermore, the proposed Office on Climate Change would be responsible for ensuring that each state agency addresses ways in which they can mitigate the causes and impacts of climate change and would conduct additional research on climate change when necessary.

Baltimore County’s chief sustainability officer position, which is currently held by former Del. Stephen Lafferty (D), has been extremely helpful in coordinating climate change mitigation efforts across various agencies, Young said. Lafferty has helped create the county’s first climate action plan, resumed glass recycling and worked towards electrifying the county’s fleets.

“This would help enhance those same successes at a state level by helping to coordinate with other jurisdictions; other counties that may also want to implement the same sort of programs would have the opportunity to do so and coordinate with the state,” Young said.

Alex Butler, a policy associate for Maryland Association of Counties, said MACo supported the intent of the bill, but seeks an amendment that would specify that the new office would not mandate any actions or spending on county governments, but rather would work with them.

However, Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City) argued that such an amendment was not necessary since the proposed bill already requires the governor’s office to work with local governments.

“Climate change is here, and I think a lot of the issues that we are having, we are all having together, and the more that we can have somebody help each jurisdiction figure out their specific issue,” the better, Boyce said.

Rather than a hindrance, “I see [the Office on Climate Change] as an additional resource to do something,” Boyce said.

Kim Coble, the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters who serves on the climate commission, said the bill is a way to ensure that the panel’s important recommendations actually come to fruition.

“Unless these recommendations are implemented and coordinated, the work is for naught,” she said. “I think it’s a very smart bill at the right time.”

Pushing the PSC to consider climate and labor impacts

The Maryland Public Service Commission regulates the state’s gas, electric and water utilities, signing off on new power plant construction and electrical facilities.

While making decisions, the PSC must consider public safety, the state’s economy and conservation of natural resources and the environment. However, commission leaders have publicly asserted that they are not required to consider impacts of climate change in their decisions.

In a statement authorizing a former coal plant at Charles P. Crane Generating Station in Baltimore County to transition to natural gas in 2019, the PSC wrote that its governing statute “does not specifically or generally require considerations regarding climate change.”

“The Commission has never required any consideration of climate change in a…proceeding,” PSC staff wrote.

House Bill 298 would require the Public Service Commission to consider the effect of climate change while reviewing applications for new generating facilities, ensuring that they are consistent with the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, based on 2006 levels.

“We need every agency in Maryland considering climate change and certainly the agency that regulates our public utilities,” the bill’s sponsor, Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), said during the bill hearing in late January.

Charkoudian’s measure would also require PSC to consider fair and stable labor standards for affected workers on utility projects. Energy companies would have to report their project wage and benefit information to the PSC each year, which the agency then must share with the General Assembly.

Over recent years, energy companies have relied more heavily on contracted workers for utility projects, so it is important to ensure that they are prioritizing worker safety and paying family-sustaining wages, co-sponsor Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) for the cross-file Senate Bill 83, said in the bill hearing last week.

“With so many of the utilities now contracting and subcontracting out their services, this [bill] will simply require that utilities provide a report so that we have a better understanding of how that is working and if it’s working best,” Kramer said.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year but was stopped short due to the abbreviated legislative session caused by the pandemic, sponsors said.

The measure “doesn’t shut down any particular types of energy…it doesn’t require particular wage standards, but it says that within all of these things that the Public Service Commission is considering, there ought to be a consideration of labor, as part of considering the economy of the State; there ought to be a consideration of climate, as part of considering the environmental impacts,” Charkoudian said.

The Public Service Commission wrote that it lacks the necessary technical and scientific expertise to carry out labor and climate considerations and will need to hire additional staff if the bill is passed.

Two leading electric utilities, Pepco and Delmarva Power, wrote in opposition to HB 298, arguing that PSC is not the best agency to determine what “fair and stable labor standards” entail, but rather the state Department of Labor is.

“You’re asking the Public Service Commission, an entity that has a specialty, to get into labor and markets and I’m not sure that’s exactly the best entity to do that,” said Del. Christopher Adams (R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico Counties).

However, Charkoudian contended that it is appropriate for legislators to direct PSC on what issues and values they must consider.

“It’s not my job in this moment to look at a particular [licensing certificate] that is not in front of me and tell you what I think should happen, but it is my job and it’s all of our jobs to give direction to the Public Service Commission of what the range of values and things are that we want them to consider.”

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