Md. House Panels Move Climate Bill as Pinsky Tries to Find Other Vehicles For His Priorities

Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A week after introducing a slew of amendments to a wide-ranging climate bill, two committees in the House of Delegates voted Thursday to advance the measure onto the House floor, four days before Sine Die — the last day of the Maryland General Assembly session.

The House Economic Matters committee voted to move the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 with four additional amendments to the Environment and Transportation Committee on Thursday morning. Later in the afternoon, the Environment and Transportation Committee voted to pass the amended bill out of committee with all Democrats and Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti (R-Frederick) in support.

“People need to keep in mind that it is a 90 day session — not an 83-day session or 80-day session,” Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), the chair of Economic Matters, said in an interview. “I don’t think a week is a very long time for a committee to take up a bill of this magnitude. We wanted an opportunity to do our jobs without being expected to just be a rubber stamp.”

However, the week delay — along with House committees’ decision to alter key elements of the bill — drew the ire of Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the Senate sponsor of the Climate Solutions Now Act. On Wednesday night during a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee voting session, Pinsky tacked the entire portion of his sweeping climate legislation calling for 5 million tree plantings onto a House bill that deals with forest conservation.

“I’m very disillusioned; I’m angry, to be honest,” he told committee members.

He also changed the name of the bill to “Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021,” a nod to his frustrations with the pace of the Climate Solutions Now Act in the two House committees.

Pinsky said this was another vehicle to retain the tree portion of the omnibus climate bill.

Under the House amended bill, however, the first $15 million for tree planting would come from the Bay Restoration Fund, which is used for wastewater and sewage projects. The rest would come out of general funds from fiscal year 2024 to 2031. The trees in HB 991 would be funded the same way, Pinsky said.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the “Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021” on Thursday.

“My understanding is, [the House] amended out about 80% of the [climate] bill. So I’m not very optimistic that it will get here in time or that it’s going to be in a posture that will please the Senate or the committee. That’s why we took the action today on the trees,” Pinsky said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

But House committee leaders said that some Senate provisions were unrealistic and risked losing public support.

“Given the scope of this bill, the House committee kept in mind the real-world scenarios our citizens, agencies and businesses face,” Del. Dana L. Stein (D-Baltimore County), the House sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “As such, the Committee focused on the critical details that make the difference between an effective law and regulations difficult to implement.”

“I’m a very passionate environmentalist, but I’m also an accountant,” Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee, said in an interview. Coming from a committee that has banned fracking, offshore oil drilling and led the fight for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, “I know that it does us no good to pass a bill that can’t actually be worked out,” Barve said.

House defends amendments

One significant change made by the House committees to the climate bill was lowering the greenhouse gas reduction goal for 2030 to a 50% reduction from 2006 levels, rather than a 60% reduction. The House preserved the statewide net-zero emission goal by 2045.

Current law requires the state to set detailed plans and strategies to decrease global-warming pollution by 40% from 2006 levels by 2030.

Barve contended that there is not enough evidence behind the 60% reduction target. He pointed to a November analysis by the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, which recommended that the state reach at least a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030.

“We ought to study whether or not we can get to 60%,” Barve said. “But as of right now, the smartest people in the state feel 50% is the correct number, so that’s what we’re going to go with.”

The House version of the bill requires the Maryland Department of the Environment, in consultation with the state Commission on Climate Change, to report by the end of the year the possibility and challenges of achieving a 60% reduction by 2035.

“If we discover because of a combination of technology changes and money from the Biden administration that we can actually get to 60%, I’ll be the first person to sponsor a bill to do that,” Barve continued.

“It is just a goal, and we are allowed to exceed goals,” Davis said.

Last week, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles wrote to Barve in support of the House version of the Climate Solutions Now Act, which Grumbles said provided “bipartisan, aggressive, and achievable solutions to the climate crisis.”

Unlike the House version, the Senate’s Climate Solutions Now Act had originally included a sunset provision in 2025, which means lawmakers can assess whether the reduction targets are too aggressive or too slow in four years.

After listening to building industry and engineers, the House committees also removed most of Pinsky’s building provisions, which would have required newly constructed large buildings to meet specific energy efficiency standards. Buildings undergoing major renovations would have to achieve a 40% reduction in their average annual energy use.

“We felt that they were unnecessarily onerous,” Barve said of Pinsky’s proposed standards.

The Senate building provisions focused on energy efficiency and reducing energy use, which is an indirect way to reduce emissions because there is going to be more solar and wind in the electricity grid in the next few years, Tom Ballentine, the vice president for policy and government relations for NAIOP, a commercial real estate organization, told Maryland Matters.

Instead, the state would be spending a tremendous amount of effort trying to avoid the use of standard electric service that has a lower carbon intensity, he said.

On the other hand, the House amendments are directly focused on reducing carbon emissions over time, aligning with the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, Ballentine continued.

More specifically, the amended bill would require each new state building to have high efficiency HVAC systems, including geothermal systems, if an analysis shows that there would be no net losses within 15 years.

New commercial buildings that are generally five stories or less would need to have a roof that is at least 40% solar-ready, reflective or green. And the Maryland Department of the Environment would have to conduct a cost study for carbon reductions and solar installations on buildings.

The House committee also nixed provisions in the Senate bill that 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. Net-zero schools “are unbelievably expensive to build” and would have dramatically undercut capital budgets in smaller counties, Barve said.

Barve also contended that according to a legislative fiscal analysis, the Senate version of Climate Solutions Now Act would have taken $8,250,000 from the state Energy Assistance Program, which offers assistance to low-income households that can’t pay their energy bills.

“In the aggregate, it means there’s less money to give to poor people,” Barve said. “Especially at a time when people are worrying about being evicted and having difficulty paying rent, if we were to do this, this would not be the time to do it.”

But Pinsky said he does not agree with this interpretation. The Senate fiscal analysis only shows an “illustrative example” of the funding, and the state’s strategy energy investment fund will most likely be higher than predicted in the upcoming years, proponents say.

A push to pass omnibus climate bill this year

Environmental advocates who had initially pushed for more stringent measures now say the most important step is to pass some climate action plan this year.

“We are glad Economic Matters and Environment and Transportation passed the Climate Solutions Now Act and added a provision to look at how to reduce emissions 60%. We hope the House and Senate will work together to pass SB 414 with the best of the provisions passed in both chambers,” said Jamie DeMarco, Maryland policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

“The Bay needs a bill now. This bill improves the climate, protects water quality, and plants 5 million trees in Maryland. We are encouraged by the recent movement towards a stronger bill in the House and urge legislators to get the job done,” echoed Robin Clark, the Maryland staff attorney of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Climate Solutions Now Act is poised to be on the House floor Friday morning. “We’ve got more than enough time to pass the bill,” Barve said.

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