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Energy & Environment

After Amendments, Climate Bill Passes Senate Committee, While House Bill Faces Resistance at Hearing

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee voted on party lines Friday to pass the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022. But the amended bill removes the requirement for all newly constructed buildings to use electric power, which was the most contentious part of the bill. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

After easing strict emission reduction standards on the building industry, a Senate committee passed a sweeping climate bill while climate measures in the House faced some pushback from committee members.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted on party lines late Friday to pass the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, which would set the statewide goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% of 2006 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2045. It is sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chair of the committee, and 26 other senators, including Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

The bill includes comprehensive measures on how the state would reach this goal, primarily through modifying building codes, electrifying the state vehicle fleet and school buses and requiring that some new public school buildings meet net-zero energy requirements.

Before the committee voted, Pinsky introduced amendments that struck the requirement for all newly constructed buildings to use electric power, rather than fossil fuels, to provide space and water heating by 2024 — which was the most contentious part of the bill. Pinsky also removed the mandate for newly constructed buildings to be prepared to install solar energy systems and electric vehicle charging equipment.

Pinsky replaced it with a new provision requiring the Public Service Commission to determine if there is enough capacity on the electric grid to support an all-electric building code in the future and to present its findings to the legislature by September 2023.

This change was made “because of the hullabaloo and some of what we heard about brownouts, this and that, from utilities,” Pinsky said.

Pinsky introduced another amendment that scaled back requirements for existing large buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of calling for buildings of 25,000 square feet or larger to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, the bill now calls for a 30% emission reduction by 2035 from 2025 levels.

Environmental advocates have argued that building retrofits and all-electric newly constructed buildings are critical for the state to be able to reach the ambitious emission reduction goal proposed in the bill, as buildings account for nearly 40% of energy consumption in the nation.

Even so, the changes were adopted smoothly in committee.

Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel) proposed an amendment to add private schools to the list of buildings exempt from emission reduction standards, which passed.

The bill passed in a 7-4 vote on party lines and is headed to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee next.

“This is probably a first step for more aggressive things in the future,” Reilly said. “You did a great job of adjusting, of reacting, of getting some of the pie but not all of it…but I’m going to have to vote no.”

After the vote, Pinsky tweeted that the amended bill was “a major step forward but weakened by the utility industry that placed their profits ahead of people & the environment.”

During a news conference Friday, Ferguson expressed confidence that meaningful climate legislation would pass this year and said he expected to see Pinsky’s bill on the Senate floor next week.

“The climate bill is going to get done this year…but it’s not easy,” he said. “Everyone wants to see reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Climate bill faces resistance in the House

Earlier on Friday, the Climate Solutions Now Act’s counterpart bill in the House faced pushback from some members of the Economic Matters Committee.

The House’s Comprehensive Climate Solutions measure, sponsored by House Environment and Transportation Chair Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery) and Del. Dana Stein (D-Baltimore County), would increase the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goal to 60% from 2006 levels by 2032 — two years later than what the Senate is proposing. Both versions call for the state to reach net-zero emissions by 2045.

This measure is a part of the House’s climate package, which consists of four individual bills as opposed to the one sweeping bill in the Senate. Barve contended that the state needs to start making strides towards electrification and carbon-free sources and away from gas and oil — a transition that could take two decades.

“The low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and now we are in a position where every decision is very, very difficult,” Barve told the House Economic Matters Committee at a hearing on Friday. “We’re going from the plucking of low-hanging fruit to hand-to-hand combat in so many instances.”

But some committee members said that the bill was too far-reaching, arguing that the cost of electrification would significantly burden ratepayers and decrease the reliability of the grid and cause power outages.

“The only way renewable energy makes sense is when we have baseload reliable energy,” said Del. Christopher Adams (R-Middle Shore), who called the bill “aspirational.” Utility companies such as Baltimore Gas and Electric testified against the bill, arguing that a climate solution needs to include “renewable natural gas,” such as gas made from food and animal waste, for backup.

But Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) highlighted a report finding that even if Maryland produced all the biogas it possibly could, it could only replace a small percentage of the state’s current natural gas usage.

Del. Steven Arentz (R-Queen Anne’s) said he believes the cost of the bill will fall primarily on the ratepayers, as utility companies testified that it will cost a lot to build out the electric grid to handle increased loads, as well as the cost the customers to convert to electric pumps.

Andrew Place, the policy director of Clean Air Task Force and former vice chairman of Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission, testified that the cost of power should not increase, as the cost of renewable power technology will go down over the lifetime of the bill.

While the Public Service Commission hasn’t formally taken a position on the climate legislation, the utility regulator’s chair, Jason M. Stanek, suggested in testimony last week that consumers’ utility bills could increase, and that gas companies and their equipment would gradually become obsolete, which could further hike consumers’ bills.

Mike Ewall, the director of Energy Justice Network, spoke against the use of nuclear energy and argued that the state can meet energy needs with just wind, solar and energy storage by 2030.

But House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said lawmakers need to hear about “realistic goals and ideas that we as a state can follow through on.”

“If the [House] Speaker wants this to happen, I’m going to make it happen…but losing 50 pounds in a month is not easy,” he said.

Excluding nuclear from the clean energy sources “puts us into some unreasonable pressures,” Wilson said. The bill does not mention the use of nuclear energy.

Environmental advocates stressed that the bill only requires the state to submit a plan on how it will achieve its decarbonization goals.

“This transition is happening,” said Josh Tulkin, the director of the Maryland Sierra Club. “The biggest question in the General Assembly is whether it’s going to be managed and the damaged individuals be mitigated or whether it’s going to be done haphazardly in an incredibly damaging way.”

But Adams described it as a “plan to put companies out of business.” Several small gas business owners testified against the bill, claiming that they would be forced to close down if this bill passes.

“I’m not going to sell electric — I’m not going to be given that opportunity — but I can sell a cleaner fossil fuel and I can assure you that Maryland and the Eastern Shore in particular will be better off for it,” said Mark Callahan, who owns Callahan’s Gas and Appliance, a third-generation business in Centreville that has 12 employees and serves 2,000 customers.

Before the bill hearing, Stein, the co-sponsor of the House climate bills, said Barve and Wilson are having regular conversations about the legislation, and he thought “there’s a good path forward” for the climate bills in Economic Matters.

Stein said they are confident that their colleagues on Economic Matters share the imperative of addressing climate change “writ large,” even if some of the legislative details have to be worked out.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.