A Tale of Two Not-So-Clean Energy Sources in the Senate

The shuttered Verso Paper Co. mill in Luke in 2019. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

For years, as state leaders attempted to address climate change, there has been robust debate in the General Assembly about removing two controversial forms of renewable energy from the menu of clean energy sources that qualify for tax breaks.

On Friday, following the most heated floor debate of this young legislative session, the state Senate moved closer to eliminating one of those fuel sources from the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, but rejected a bid to remove the other. Some bad feelings may have been left in the debate’s wake.

The Senate gave preliminary approval Friday to a bill sponsored by Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) to remove “black liquor” ― the gooey, pulpy byproduct of paper production ― from the roster of fuels that qualify for tax breaks under the state’s Renewable Fuels Standard.

That’s been a priority of environmentalists for many years. But the bill became palatable for a majority of senators because paper is no longer being produced in Maryland. The hulking mill owned by Verso Paper Co., in the small town of Luke in far Western Maryland, shuttered in mid-2019. Close to 700 workers lost their jobs, and the closure had a dramatic impact on the regional economy.

Lawmakers held off on moving a black liquor bill last year, in case another paper company decided to move in to the Luke mill. But officials now concede it won’t happen.

The company’s printing presses are being shipped to a paper mill in Turkey. Karen Glenn Hood, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Commerce, told Maryland Matters this week that an investment company now has Verso’s Luke mill facilities under a letter of intent. The company has varied industrial interests that could partially occupy part of the mill property, but the investor may also seek third party businesses to occupy parts of the property, she said.

Senate Finance Vice Chairman Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) said that with the mill closed, there is no reason for black liquor to qualify for state clean energy credits.

“There’s no environmental argument for keeping it in there,” he said. “There’s no job-loss argument.”

Republicans attempted to amend the bill three times, but fell short. The most controversial and consequential amendment was made by Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick).

For the past decade, Hough has attempted to strip fuel generated by Maryland’s two waste-to-energy plants from the renewable fuel portfolio. The plant in South Baltimore, operated by Wheelabrator, is considered by many experts to be the biggest source of air pollution in the city. And the waste-to-energy incinerator in Dickerson, in northern Montgomery County, isn’t considered much better.

Hough appealed to fellow senators to support his “common sense” amendment.

“I don’t have the best rating in the world from the Sierra Club,” he said. “If I can support this…this is common sense.”

Many in the environmental community have also attempted to get this fuel removed from the clean energy portfolio, saying it’s a contradiction for these companies to get clean energy credits when they are polluting the air.

Feldman, serving as floor leader for Kelley’s black liquor legislation, urged his colleagues to reject Hough’s amendment. He warned that Hough was attempting to attach a major piece of legislation to another bill without it being subject to a public hearing or being studied by legislative analysts.

“A feel-good amendment green vote is no substitute to an end-around of our committee process,” Feldman said.

But Hough pushed back, noting he had introduced the bill in prior legislative sessions and that it had been fully vetted by legislative analysts in the past. Hough has twice introduced the bill as standalone legislation and it hasn’t gotten out of committee. But he has successfully attached the measure as an amendment to other energy legislation ― though those bills wound up stalling.

Hough grew angry as Feldman continued to speak out against his amendment.

“He’s challenged my motivations on the floor ― that’s out of line,” the Republican said. Feldman later apologized ― twice ― and got a gentle rebuke from Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

“This is the Senate of Maryland,” Ferguson said, sounding very much like his predecessor, the late Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). “We treat each other with respect.”

Republicans said they did not understand why Ferguson was whipping Democrats to vote against the amendment. Ferguson later told reporters that he had not whipped the vote, but did tell Democratic colleagues that he planned to oppose Hough’s amendment.

On the Senate floor, Ferguson said he has supported bills to eliminate the fuel from the state RPS. He recalled that waste-to-energy fuel was added to the RPS a decade ago, amid rumors that a green energy company would take over the South Baltimore incinerator.

After his amendment died by a 16-30 vote, Hough mused in an interview that he could wind up with a better grade on the Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ annual scorecard than many Democrats based on the floor vote on his amendment. He also said he would likely try to attach it to other pieces of energy legislation during the session.

Dannielle Lipinski, a spokeswoman for Maryland LCV, said the green group had supported the legislation and amendment in the past and did include it on previous legislative report cards. But she said Friday it was too early to tell whether this year’s amendment would be part of the forthcoming evaluation of lawmaker records.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran 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 was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.