Sweeping Climate Bill Passes Senate Committee After Four Voting Sessions

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee has advanced an omnibus climate action bill that would put Maryland on track towards achieving statewide net-zero emissions by 2045.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 would require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% and plant 5 million trees by 2030. It is sponsored by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who is also chair of the committee, and Del. Dana L. Stein (D-Baltimore County) on the House side.

The state government’s vehicle fleet would have to generate net-zero emissions by 2030. At least one of the next five schools built in each jurisdiction must meet net-zero energy requirements, through energy efficiency measures, solar panels or geothermal energy under Pinsky’s measure.

The 8-3 committee vote late Friday was largely along party lines, with all Democrats voting in favor, along with Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel). The panel had four working sessions on the bill before voting to advance the measure to the Senate floor.

Sen. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s) said that he “reluctantly” supported Pinsky’s legislation.

“I’m not happy about this bill, but I sensed the time to put something in place that will ensure that we protect the environment, but I think we’ve missed some golden opportunities to stick in some other things that would have been beneficial to people that don’t have a voice,” he said to the committee on Friday.

Pinsky’s measure requires the state’s environmental justice commission to recommend a system for identifying communities most affected by climate change, to recommend ways to build climate equity and to determine the percentage of state funding that should be invested into affected communities. Ten percent of the 5 million trees planted within the next decade would be planted in underserved urban areas, including public housing projects.

But there are specific Black and Brown communities currently living near power plants and incinerators that need help now, and the bill does not sufficiently incorporate that population, Patterson told Maryland Matters. “I’m more concerned about the lack of inclusion in the bill,” he said.

A number of amendments were tacked onto the bill after the four committee voting sessions this month.

Pinsky’s bill includes a just transition workgroup, which would recommend workforce training and career pathways for displaced fossil fuel workers, especially for veterans, women and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) introduced an amendment to include a veteran, a formerly incarcerated person, two women and two NAACP members on the workgroup. “I want us to be more direct and proactive and making sure all these individuals we say we will pay special attention to are intentionally included on this workgroup,” Ellis said.

But Sen Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) took exception to appointing commissioners based solely on gender or race, rather than their expertise, and called the idea “patronizing.”

“We are setting up a quota system with this amendment,” Kagan said. “There’s no reason why [everyone on the workgroup] couldn’t all be women or all people of color because the women or the people of color or the women of color happen to be electricians or environmental experts.”

“By saying we get two girls on the panel…I’m offended by that,” she continued. “I think people wear more than one hat.” She floated the idea of adding language that gender, race and incarceration status should be considered in working group nominations, but Pinsky said the state could not tell outside organizations, like labor unions, who to nominate to be on the work group.

Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City) said she understood the concern of tokenizing women and people of color, but asserted there had to be an intentional and self-conscious way to ensure that a diverse group of people are represented on state commissions.

The amendment to increase representation on the workgroup to include two women in affected industries selected by the governor, as well as a veteran, a formerly incarcerated person and two NAACP members passed.

Reilly proposed an amendment to allow the Maryland Transportation Administration to purchase alternative fuel buses alongside zero-emission buses by the beginning of fiscal year 2023, which starts on July 1, 2022.

“I’m concerned that we won’t have enough reliable, long distance transit buses to meet the requirement,” Reilly said. “I don’t want to change the goal of 100% [zero-emission buses] by a certain date.” Some of the electric fleets in Montgomery County, Philadelphia and New York are having “growing pains,” he said.

Pinsky edited Reilly’s amendment so that the MTA can consider alternative fuel buses that are not run on diesel or gasoline if the mandate to transition to all electric buses cannot be fulfilled. Reilly’s amendment was adopted.

Republican lawmakers questioned the funding and timeline goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sen. Jason C. Gallion (R-Harford) proposed an amendment to achieve zero-emissions by 2050 instead of 2045, but it was rejected.

“My concern is that we have a bill that’s just unrealistic and not achievable,” said Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore).

Pinsky referenced the Maryland Department of the Environment’s own climate action plan, which was released on Friday and similarly calls for net-zero emissions by 2045.

In any case, the Senate bill includes 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.

The Climate Solutions Now Act would require no more than $20 million from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund to help pay for replacing the state fleet with electric cars and for school buildings to become carbon neutral or solar ready. For planting trees, $15 million from the Bay Restoration Fund annually and $1.25 million from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund would be mandated.

One of Ellis’ amendments to require the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund to prioritize tree planting projects in underserved areas was adopted.

Gallion said the money this bill would take from the Bay Restoration Fund infringes on local sewer projects that currently rely on this funding source.

In many cases, trees are more effective in curtailing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into rivers and the Bay than repairing some of the sewers, Pinsky said.

“This tree issue is a twofer. It helps clean up the Bay…and it also captures carbon dioxide, so the state benefits in two different ways,” Pinsky said.

The Climate Solutions Now Act will go to Senate Budget and Taxation committee for financial review and then on to the Senate floor.

The House version of the bill was heard in the Environment and Transportation Committee, where Stein is the vice chairman, on Feb. 11.

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