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Energy & Environment

House Set to Debate Sweeping Climate Legislation — With Amendments to Senate Bill

Two key House committees voted to move Climate Solutions Now Act onto the floor on Friday. The biggest changes include delaying the greenhouse gas reduction goal by a year, requiring newly constructed buildings to be prepared to switch to electric power and removing all provisions relating to net-zero school buildings. Photo by Danielle Gaines.

Two key committees in the House of Delegates voted back to back on Friday to approve an amended version of a sweeping climate bill that would accelerate the statewide goal to achieve carbon neutral emissions by 2045.

The Environment and Transportation Committee and the Economic Matters Committee approved eleven amendments to the Climate Solutions Now Act, which is slated to be debated on the House floor on Monday.

The biggest changes include delaying an interim greenhouse gas reduction goal by a year, requiring newly constructed buildings to be prepared to switch to electric power and removing all provisions relating to net-zero school buildings.

“This isn’t just about global climate change in my opinion, this is also about public health and safety,” Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery) told the committee on Friday. He said that his committee has been talking “very extensively for nearly seven months” with Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the lead sponsor on Climate Solutions Now Act.

This marked a shift from the 2021 version of the climate legislation that fell apart on the last day of the legislative session due to irreconcilable differences between the two chambers.

Both House committees approved an amendment that extended the date by which an interim greenhouse gas reduction goal — to reduce emissions to 60% of 2006 levels — must be met, from 2030 to 2031. The House’s climate package had initially proposed to reduce emissions by 2032, but delegates compromised with Senate leaders to delay the target date by one year instead of two years.

Amid intense opposition from utility companies and commercial property owners earlier this legislative session, the Senate removed a provision that would have banned all newly constructed buildings from using fossil fuels to provide space and water heating by 2024. But the House committees strengthened this part of the bill by approving an amendment to require all newly constructed buildings to be “electric ready” starting in January 2023.

In other words, new buildings must have enough electrical capacity and infrastructure to replace fossil fuel appliances and switch to an all-electric building standard in the future relatively easily.

However, some delegates expressed concern for building owners who have been in the planning stages for a long time and may have to scrap plans to ensure a project is “electric ready.”

The House committees also changed the bill so that fewer buildings would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More specifically, the measure now requires commercial buildings or multifamily residential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger to reduce emissions by 20% below 2025 levels by 2035 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. The House also exempted “manufacturing buildings” from the proposed building emissions standards.

The Senate had proposed requiring buildings 25,000 square feet or larger to reduce emissions by 30% below 2025 levels by 2035, while large buildings owned by the state would have had to reduce emissions by 50% below 2025 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2035. The House committees removed the different requirements for large buildings owned by the state.

The House committees also cut all provisions requiring local school districts to build net-zero schools. The Senate’s version of the bill would have established a grant fund of up to $3 million from fiscal year 2024 through 2032 and required at least one school building built in each local school system to have carbon free emissions, if funding is available.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop working on it in future years,” Barve said.

Del. Mary Lehman (D-Anne Arundel) said that the state would be “missing an opportunity” if it did not require new school buildings to achieve net-zero emissions within the near future. “There are thousands of school buildings across the state, and we’ll continue to build those of course, so we can’t leave those out,” she said.

Although striking new net-zero school buildings from the bill would probably not have immediate greenhouse gas impacts, it would have been a good signal “to have our schools and public buildings lead the way and have our children be in the best, environmentally sound cutting edge environment,” said Josh Tulkin, the executive director of the Maryland Sierra Club.

In place of an all-electric new building code, the Senate proposed a study completed by the Public Service Commission to evaluate the impact of electrifying more buildings.

As a result of requests from environmental advocates, the House committees added more parameters to the study, including a provision that would require the commission to consider the impacts of energy efficiency. The House also removed a provision requiring gas companies to determine investments the state needs to make to take on an additional load of electrification from buildings and retiring gas facilities, which advocates worried would be biased in favor of the utility companies.

“The study [by the Public Service Commission] plus the intent language in the study, plus the building energy performance standards…are all really, really strong signals that Maryland wants to be a leader in moving off of gas,” Tulkin said. “The writing is very very clearly on the wall,” and it would be surprising if building developers were not anticipating an all-electric building standard in the future, he continued.

The amended bill also now explicitly addresses the potential role of nuclear power in the clean energy transition by adding three representatives of the nuclear energy industry to a working group that would study ways for the state to improve its electricity grid and the viability of nuclear generating facilities as a part of the clean energy transition.

Representatives of the nuclear industry had been urging lawmakers to recognize the potential role of carbon-free nuclear energy in meeting the state’s ambitious climate goals.

Del. Gerald Clark (R-Calvert) decided to vote in favor of the bill because he had promised to do so if nuclear energy was acknowledged in the bill. “I can’t guarantee that I will vote yes for it on the floor,” Clark said.

Del. Melissa Wells (D-Baltimore City) said she was “reluctantly” voting in favor of the bill because she felt it did not do enough to ensure strong labor standards during the energy transition.

“My challenge with this is that we often put [labor standards] on the back burner,” Wells said. “A lot of workers and my constituents really want to see us move something that is meaningful, not only in making their communities cleaner and more beautiful but also to provide jobs that will sustain them.”

The bill would establish a “Just Transition” working group that would study workforce development and training opportunities related to energy efficiency and clean energy technology with a focus on dislocated workers in fossil fuel industries.

After some committee members raised concerns about how the bill’s proposed building standards would affect specific industries, Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), the chair of the Economic Matters Committee, said that there will be plenty of opportunities in the future to make changes to the state climate policies.

“Between now and 2040, we will have a multitude of sessions to come back and continue to address this. This is merely getting the ball rolling and pointing the direction in which we are rolling — which is to try to be as electrified as possible and reduce our greenhouse gasses,” Wilson said.