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Energy & Environment

Here Are Three Smaller Climate Bills That Could Have a Big Impact

Part of Belfast Road in Potomac was washed away after heavy rain and flooding in July 2019. Photo by Kristi King/WTOP.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, wide-ranging legislation that would revolutionize the way Maryland confronts climate change, is understandably getting most of the attention this General Assembly session.

But there are several other measures before the legislature this year designed to protect the state during the growing climate crisis.

Here is a look at three of them:

Local climate emergency plans

A bill by Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) and Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) would require counties to prepare a climate crisis plan, outlining how the changing climate impacts each individual jurisdiction — and steps local officials are taking to mitigate the dangers.

The bill would require counties to present their plans to the Maryland Department of the Environment for review and feedback, and then would require the counties to update their plans every three years.

“The whole purpose is to ensure that all 24 jurisdictions are taking action to address the climate crisis within their own jurisdictions,” Kramer said in an interview. “Some of them are already doing that, but many are not.”

Click here to read more from our Climate Calling series.

Kramer asserted that each of the state’s counties, along with Baltimore City, are parts of the broader state strategy for fighting climate effects, and that the local governments and the state need to be in constant communication and collaborating on policy solutions.

“It needs to be an all hands on deck approach,” he said. “It can’t be piecemeal. These have to be serious conversations, based on science. It can’t be political.”

Kramer also described the bill as a way of “holding every jurisdiction accountable for participating in the response to climate change.”

But the legislation could run into opposition from the powerful Maryland Association of Counties, which traditionally has resisted measures from the legislature that local leaders view as unfunded mandates.

Michael Sanderson, MACo’s executive director, said the Hidalgo-Fraser/Kramer legislation is “on our radar. We haven’t had a chance to sort it out yet.”

Sanderson said some of the counties’ trepidation about bills like this is that just assessing their own risks from climate change can be expensive and may require hiring a consulting firm — and that compliance can also be tricky.

But Kramer expressed the hope that giving county leaders the opportunity to think globally and act locally will have some appeal to his legislative colleagues.

“At the end of the day, why should anyone oppose this?” he said.

The bill will be heard on Feb. 18 in the House Environment and Transportation Committee and on Feb. 24 in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Suing the polluters

Another bill, sponsored by Dels. Sheila Ruth (D-Baltimore County) and Jennifer R. Terrasa (D-Howard), would authorize the Maryland attorney general to sue a publicly traded entity with assets of $1 billion or more for damage to the state climate — in other words, fossil fuel companies. The bill would also authorize the attorney general to hire outside counsel to pursue the legal case if necessary.

Under current law, the attorney general cannot initiate such a lawsuit without authorization from the governor.

The legislation is being debated as several cities, including Baltimore, have sued oil and gas companies for damages associated with the warming planet. Only in recent years have energy giants publicly acknowledged the links between fossil fuels and climate change.

“Exxon-Mobil and other fossil fuel companies have spent decades deceiving the public about climate change,” Ruth said. “These are deceptive practices and Maryland taxpayers are already paying the price for the damages we’ve already been seeing, like the two floods in Ellicott City.”

This is the second go-round for the legislation. The attorney general’s office supported the legislation last year, along with environmental groups, the Baltimore City Department of Law, and the Maryland Legislative Coalition, a progressive group. Opponents included the Maryland Building Industry Association and the Maryland Farm Bureau.

The bill did not get a vote in the House Health and Government Operations Committee last year but it’s up for another hearing there next Tuesday afternoon.

Climate and pension plans

In their role as co-chairs of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Pensions, Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) introduced legislation this week that would require the Maryland State Retirement and Pensions System to consider climate change as a financial factor when making investment decisions. The bill requires the pension system to identify climate risks, determine investment opportunities in emerging technologies, and establish policies to implement and report on these practices.

The legislation, if passed, would make the General Assembly the first legislature in the nation to codify the argument that is increasingly being advanced in financial board rooms that climate risk is investment risk. The bill would ensure that the state is taking proactive measures to protect its investments for 400,000 retirees, the lawmakers said.

“Water levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more and more common,” said Elfreth, whose district has been hammered by a tornado and dramatic flooding in recent months. “Because Maryland is particularly vulnerable to these threats, it is both urgent and responsible that we position our pension system to identify and confront climate risk as fiduciary risk.”

Lierman called the legislation “an important step that is both environmentally and fiscally the right thing to do.”

The lawmakers said that major institutional investors are already responding positively to investment opportunities that allow for progress on the management of climate-related risk, including transition plans to a net-zero economy. The legislation would create an advisory panel of experts who would examine the state’s investment portfolio to identify climate risks and recommend alternatives.

“The proposed legislation to mandate enhanced consideration of climate risks to the pension fund could not be more timely or urgent,” said Alan Miller, a climate finance and policy consultant. “Last year alone extreme weather events inflicted damages of $145 billion in the U.S. and $280 billion worldwide.”

Miller added that the bill allows for “in-depth investor analysis” to evaluate climate risks within companies and in the state’s investment funds.

But the bill may disappoint some environmentalists who were hoping the state government would move to fully divest fossil fuels from its retirement and pension portfolio. Over time, the sponsors said, the bill would encourage investments to move away from fossil fuels and towards green and renewable energy.

The bill will be heard on Feb. 22 in the House Appropriations Committee and on Feb. 24 in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.