Senate Panel Gets to Work on Sweeping Climate Bill

Sunny-day flooding in Annapolis. City of Annapolis photo.

A Senate committee on Wednesday began discussions on a sweeping climate action bill, which would require Maryland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% and plant 5 million trees by 2030.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), would put Maryland on track towards achieving net-zero state greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

Some senators asked about the choice of reduction target numbers during the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee’s initial examination of the bill Wednesday evening.

The numbers came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists assembled by the United Nations to give policy guidance, Pinsky, the chairman of the panel, explained. He also pointed to the flashflood in India this week caused by a glacier that broke off the Himalaya mountains and led to the death of dozens of people.

“It could be no turning back,” Pinsky said. “Even if we do better, you have the ice starting to melt, sea levels start to rise and we’re never going to recapture them.”

But the bill does include a sunset provision in 2025, which means lawmakers can in four years assess whether the reduction targets are too fast or too slow, Pinsky said. In other words, there will be a chance to alter reduction goals depending on what happens in the next few years.

Pinsky’s measure would also mandate that at least one of the next five schools built in each jurisdiction meet net-zero energy requirements, through energy efficiency measures, solar panels or geothermal energy. However, new school buildings that are not immediately net zero energy must be ready to add solar panels at a later date.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) highlighted a concern from the Maryland Association of Counties that it would be a significant burden on county governments to ensure that new school buildings are solar-ready.

Although the upfront costs may be heavy, the schools will save money down the line, Pinsky said.

“A lot of people like the status quo and don’t like to change,” but these projects have been successful in the Prince George’s and Howard county school districts, Pinsky said.

The bill also includes a just transition workgroup that would recommend workforce training and career pathways for displaced fossil fuel workers. But some labor unions in written testimony said they are still concerned about job elimination, Carozza said.

Some unions have said the workgroup was too focused on retraining, which is helpful to displaced workers early in their career. But someone who is close to retirement age may not want to go through an apprenticeship just to work two more years before retiring.

Amendments will be added to the legislation to require the workgroup to identify additional protections, such as maintaining retirement health care benefits, a committee staffer said.

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard) asked if there could be more specificity around funding for the recommendations on job transition and disadvantaged communities that would come out of the workgroup.

Pinsky said he was hesitant to attach a large price tag to the bill and commit to “future money,” which may make it more unfavorable to some opponents. Already, this bill is asking for $20 million, Pinsky said.

The committee will reconvene Friday to make amendments, and the House version of the bill will be heard before the House Environment and Transportation Committee Thursday afternoon.

Other climate measures heard in Senate panel

The Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held hearings on two other climate bills Wednesday.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), would create an Office on Climate Change within the governor’s office to centralize state efforts to combat climate change. The office, Klausmeier said, is modeled on the chief sustainability officer’s role in Baltimore County — a position currently held by Stephen Lafferty, a former state legislator.

“We as leaders have to make swift, decisive action to meet this increasingly pressing global crisis,” she said.

Joshua Tulkin, Maryland director of the Sierra Club, said the government needs someone coordinating the state’s response to climate change.

“We have legislation that’s only as good as its implementation,” he said. “Implementation has been a challenge.”

The committee also held a hearing on a bill by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) that would extend restrictions and design criteria on certain publicly-funded waterfront or flood plain developments to similar private construction or reconstruction projects.

“Severe rainstorms and flooding will not distinguish between buildings built by public money and buildings built by private money,” Elfreth said.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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