Bipartisan Coal Transition Bill Withdrawn by House Sponsor

The Chalk Point power plant in Prince George’s County is slated to retire in June. Photo courtesy of the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The Maryland Coal Community Transition Act of 2021 was withdrawn during a committee voting session on Monday, so that environmentalists and labor unions can continue to work together during the legislative interim on what a just transition from coal would look like.

House Bill 66 is a bipartisan bill that would have phased out Maryland’s coal-fired plants and established a Fossil Fuel Community Transition Fund and a Fossil Fuel Transition Advisory Council to mitigate economic impacts for displaced employees.

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, said he added the bill to the voting list 90 minutes before the panel’s voting session began on Monday because “the advocates were getting impatient.”

“They want an answer and I’m ready to give it to them,” Davis said.

Committee members agreed that there was still a strong divide on the bill that environmentalists and labor unions needed more time to hash out.

Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr. (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the bill, withdrew the bill in favor of a “summer study” to be conducted during the legislative interim.

The intention of the bill was “to provide an off-ramp for those individuals who will be impacted by the closing [of coal plants],” Brooks said.

“Officially sending [House Bill 66] to summer study potentially reinforces our belief that this is a conversation that needs to continue,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery).

The Senate cross-file has not yet received a committee vote.

Advocates were displeased.

“We’re very disappointed. A near-universal local, national, and international call to act on climate and manage the transition off coal was again dismissed in favor of a small group of opposition voices. A coal plant closed last summer. Another will close in less than three months with even more jobs lost. Yet the General Assembly has again refused to take action to support impacted coal workers and communities,” David Smedick of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a statement to Maryland Matters.

A similar bill was proposed last year but did not get out of committee during the truncated legislative session caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But since then, the operators of five of Maryland’s six coal plants have announced plans to retire by 2030.

This summer, GenOn Holdings Inc. abruptly shuttered its coal plants in Dickerson and laid off its employees with only 90 days notice. Soon after, they announced plans to close two of 55-year-old coal plants at Chalk Point Generating Station in southern Prince George’s County by June 2021.

In October, Talen Energy Corp. announced that its two power plants in Anne Arundel County are slated to retire by 2025.

And in December, GenOn Holdings Inc. said it would end operations on its 50-year-old Morgantown power plant in Charles County by 2027, and expressed support for the Maryland Coal Community Transition Act.

Sen. Christopher West (R-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the Senate cross-file, said in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee, that he worked out a deal with AES Corporation, the owner of Warrior Run power plant in Allegany County, to stop burning coal in 2030. However, AES Corporation has not publicly announced its retirement plans.

Maryland’s coal-fired power plants generated less than 6% of the electricity that was consumed by the state in 2020, but emitted around 4.4 million metric tons of climate-polluting carbon dioxide, according to Smedick.

“In the year in which the operations and Maryland’s coal plants were at historic lows, they still produced the climate pollution equivalent of nearly 1,000,000 cars,” he said.

The Maryland Coal Community Transition Act of 2021 would have finalized these retirement plans into law, which Sen. West said was necessary because markets can change, as there have been instances in which coal plants announced retirement plans but then decided to continue operating at the last minute.

“This bill really holds the owners feet to the fire to indeed do what they have committed to do,” West said in a bill hearing last month.

Bill supporters also argued that a set timeline was critical to have a job transition plan and prevent precipitous layoffs that leave more coal workers displaced.

But labor unions strongly opposed setting specific dates for coal plant closures and said the transition plan for displaced workers outlined in the bill, which must be submitted to the General Assembly by the end of 2022, was not robust or fast enough.

“The bottom line is — I’m president of workers of labor and I cannot support that on such and such date, I support your job being terminated. That just is not something I can do,” Donna Edwards, the president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO said in a bill hearing last month.

“This bill does not help with the transition because it does not dedicate the funding that is necessary for the workers and for the communities,” she continued.

House Bill 66/Senate Bill 148 would have allocated $40 million to help retrain displaced coal workers and supplement salary and benefit gaps.

Some lawmakers were frustrated with the push back from labor unions given the imminent coal plant closures and legislators’ efforts to help those displaced workers.

“It’s kind of like blacksmithing — at some point, it’s going to be outdated, so do we keep telling the blacksmith to work every day or do we try to help them plan and retrain?” Del. C. T. Wilson (D-Charles) said Monday.

“The whole anti-union part of this…we’re actually trying to preserve these individuals’ ways of life and retrain them — it’s very frustrating,” he continued.

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