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Energy & Environment

Bill Would Require Government Agencies to Consider Climate and Environmental Justice in their Decisions

Emissions spew from a large stack at the coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant in 2018. The plant and another, the nearby H.A. Wagner power plant, have received approval to transition from burning coal to oil in the years ahead. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require governmental agencies to evaluate how their actions may negatively affect the climate or hamper environmental justice efforts.

“We are working through a great deal of environmental issues based on decisions made decades ago, often deemed not to have any impacts or not evaluated enough to consider further impacts,” such as air pollutants from highways and inland flooding from construction, Del. Regina Boyce (D-Baltimore City) told the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

The “Climate Equity Act,” sponsored by Boyce and Sen. Ron Watson (D-Prince George’s), would require governmental agencies to assess the impacts of climate, environmental justice and labor before approving permits or projects. All government actions must align with the statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals under Boyce’s bill, which is estimated to cost the state millions of dollars annually, according to its fiscal note.

If a government agency finds that an action will have a negative impact on the climate or an environmentally overburdened community, the bill would require officials to come up with a mitigation plan. Government agencies would also have to consider opportunities that could benefit an environmentally overburdened community.

Boyce’s bill defines an “overburdened community” as a low-income or moderate-income community or a community of color in which residents currently or historically have been disproportionately burdened by environmental impacts such as pollution, health and lower economic success.

Other legislation under consideration this year would leave the task of defining overburdened communities to the state’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

“We can’t wait any longer for the Maryland Department of the Environment or the [environmental justice commission] to figure it out,” Katlyn Schmitt, a policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, said in an interview. “Our communities can’t wait another 20 years.”

The Climate Equity Act is modeled after a measure that passed last year, requiring the Maryland Public Service Commission — which regulates the state’s gas, electric and water utilities — to consider the effect of climate change while reviewing applications for new generating facilities, ensuring that they are consistent with statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Recently, the PSC gave approval to two power plants in Curtis Bay — the Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner power plants — to transition from coal to oil, which “is not much better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions or health impacts” and affects a community already disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens, said Victoria Venable, the Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The decision moved forward because the Maryland Department of the Environment does not have a requirement to consider climate in their decisions, Venable said.

If this bill passes, all relevant state agencies would have been required to carefully study how oil plants would affect an already overburdened community and provide government leaders more complete information for the proposed project, Venable continued.

The owners of the power plants had announced in 2020 that they would stop burning coal at the facilities by the end of 2025 and convert the plants to provide power with alternative fuel sources.

Opponents of Boyce’s bill said Wednesday that it is too broad to be realistically implemented.

Champ McCulloch, the president of the Maryland Associated General Contractors, said that the definition of a “governmental unit” and government “action” were too sweeping. “What is a unit? It could be every level of government down to the local level.” A government action could include “everything from cutting a check to mailing a letter,” he continued.

“This is so comprehensive, so overreaching, and so intrusive…it will have a multimillion dollar impact on the cost of the government doing its normal business,” McCulloch said.

The Climate Equity Act would require governmental agencies to “engage in meaningful communication with the public” when considering negative climate impacts of their actions.

But Dominic Butchko of the Maryland Association of Counties, which opposed the bill, said that would “slow the progress of local governments by imposing unnecessary and resource-consuming administrative burdens.”

Boyce acknowledged that the bill as it is currently written is “sweeping” and that there needs to be “clarifying language and narrowing of scope” to remove unintended consequences of the bill.


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Bill Would Require Government Agencies to Consider Climate and Environmental Justice in their Decisions