‘They Almost Gutted the Bill,’ Pinsky Says as House Panel Amends Climate Legislation

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

A House subcommittee has drastically scaled back ambitious climate legislation. By proposing a spate of amendments Wednesday, the panel essentially ensured that two substantially different climate bills are moving through the General Assembly.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the lead Senate sponsor, told Maryland Matters. “While I appreciate efforts that went into amending the legislation, it seems that major components have been removed which raises concerns about fulfilling the bill’s purpose.”

“They almost gutted the bill,” he said.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 that passed the Senate three weeks ago included an interim benchmark: by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions must be 60% lower than they were in the state in 2006. Current law requires the state to set detailed plans and strategies to decrease global-warming pollution by 40% from 2006 levels by 2030.

But the House Environment and Transportation Subcommittee on the Environment proposed to amend House Bill 583, the cross-file, to instead aim for a 50% reduction by 2030, a target that aligns with the Maryland Department of the Environment’s climate goals and with Senate Republicans’ attempted amendments when Pinsky’s bill was being debated on the Senate floor. The amended bill is tentatively scheduled for a vote in the subcommittee on Thursday morning.

With the House amendments, “Maryland is not going to be a leader on climate change,” Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said in a phone interview.  “We have to go from where we are now to net-zero in 2045,” and this eased goal “frankly just makes things harder after 2030.”

As 24 electric cars drove around Annapolis on Wednesday in support of the Climate Solutions Now Act, advocates from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and others chanted: “we need justice, and we need at least 60%” in the rain.

Soon after the House Environment and Transportation Committee heard Pinsky present his bill for an hour, the committee chairman, Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), told his colleagues that hitting the 60% greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal would be a “tall order” — and that the requirement would face opposition in the House Economic Matters Committee, which must also consider the bill.

In 2016, California codified a goal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. New York adopted the same interim target in 2019. Massachusetts’ governor recently signed a law with a target of 50% emission reductions from 1990 levels by 2030.

The House subcommittee also proposed to shift the funding source for the wide-ranging climate bill.

The Senate’s version of the Climate Solutions Now bill would take no more than $20 million from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund each year 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 would be taken from the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) annually and $1.25 million from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund.

The House struck funding from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund. Instead, the state would rely on federal funds to electrify the state fleet, Del. Dana L. Stein (D-Baltimore County), the House sponsor of the bill, said in the environment subcommittee meeting Wednesday.

Although the first $15 million for tree planting would come from the Bay Restoration Fund, the rest would come out of general funds from fiscal year 2024 to 2031 under the amended House bill.

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans took issue with diverting money from the Bay Restoration Fund, established in 2004 to support upgrades in Maryland’s 67 wastewater treatment plants and in septic tank systems, which are widely used in rural areas without central sewer systems. An amendment to appropriate $15 million from the general fund failed on the Senate floor.

The House subcommittee also mostly gutted the Senate’s energy efficient building requirements. Large new buildings would need to steadily reach net zero emissions by 2033 under Pinsky’s bill. Of the new buildings that were built in Baltimore City in the last few years, less than 10 would have been affected by this provision, Pinsky said during the bill hearing in the House Environment and Transportation Committee Wednesday.

And if the costs exceeded energy savings for more than 15 years, a local jurisdiction could waive the requirement.

But the House subcommittee struck those out and added a provision that would require new commercial buildings that are generally five stories or less to have a roof that is at least 40% solar-ready, reflective or green. It would also mandate the Maryland Department of the Environment to conduct a cost study for carbon reductions and solar installations on buildings.

“We had all kinds of checks and balances, but that still wasn’t good enough,” Pinsky said. Buildings make up nearly 60% of energy consumption in the state, according to the Maryland Legislative Coalition.

Additionally, Pinsky’s bill would have required at least one newly constructed school in each local jurisdiction to have net-zero emissions or prepare to add solar panels on its rooftop. It would have also established a school loan fund, but the House subcommittee nixed all of those provisions as well.

The House subcommittee proposed a solar land use commission made up of farmers, developers and environmental groups. It would be responsible for advising the governor and General Assembly on how much land the state needs for solar panels in order to meet renewable energy goals.

Local jurisdictions like Montgomery County have been restricting solar panel construction on certain agricultural land, Barve told the environment subcommittee. But land-based solar energy is significantly cheaper than rooftop solar, he argued.

“If we as a state, county by county, ban solar in fields, then we can’t achieve any of our renewable energy goals without tripling people’s electric power rates,” Barve said.

Overall, Pinsky said the amended House’s version of the Climate Solutions Now Act “doesn’t move the needle very much.”

Jamie DeMarco, Maryland policy director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, told the House subcommittee that he recommends accepting the proposed amendments as they are in order to ensure the bill’s speedy passage through the House. There are only 11 days left until Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly session.

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