Last year at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference, Kumar Barve and Paul Pinsky shared a stage to discuss the Climate Solutions Now Act, the sweeping legislation that the General Assembly had passed months earlier, thanks to their leadership.
But their body language toward each other was noticeably tense; in 2021, the sweeping climate legislation that both veteran lawmakers were intimately involved with collapsed on the final day of the legislative session, due to divisions between the House and the Senate, and more than a year later there still were some evident hurt feelings.
It had been obvious for years that both were deeply committed to combating climate change. But their differences in style and approach were plainly visible during last year’s panel discussion: Pinsky, the sponsor of the climate bill who was then the chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, comes to fighting for the environment as a longtime political activist and organizer. Barve, then the chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, is wonkier, a science, tech and statistics guy.
Fast forward a year to Wednesday’s kickoff of the 2023 MACo conference, and Pinsky and Barve shared the stage again to discuss the climate bill and its impact — this time in new roles.
After lengthy careers in the legislature that ended earlier this year — Pinsky, 73, was the longest-serving state senator at the time of his departure, and Barve, 64, was tied for the second longest-serving delegate when he left — both are poised to continue to have a huge impact on Maryland energy and climate policy. Pinsky is now director of the Maryland Energy Administration, and Barve is a new commissioner on the Maryland Public Service Commission.
And both were noticeably more relaxed in each other’s presence Wednesday, with Pinsky touching Barve’s shoulders on a couple of occasions to emphasize a point, and the two men bro-ily pointing to each other when they were discussing the climate legislation. Pinsky at one point noted that the climate bill had been “shepherded through the legislature by my colleague and me.” Barve lamented the failure of a provision in the Climate Solutions Act Now bill that both he and Pinsky had fought for, requiring electrification for all new buildings.
“We were not able to convince our colleagues to go there,” he said.
If it took a few moments for the several dozen county officials, state bureaucrats and environmental leaders in attendance to adjust to what they were witnessing, it was understandable. Pinsky was first elected to the House in 1986 and joined the Senate in 1994 as a back-bench bomb thrower at first, though his role evolved and expanded over time. Barve was elected to the House in 1990 and entered the top echelons of leadership in 2003.
Both have conceded that there’s a learning curve to their new jobs. Barve said that as one of five commissioners on the PSC, which regulates utilities, he spends a substantial amount of his time reading up on case law and examining files on a variety of matters that come before the PSC.
“I have to tell you, I’m sort of drinking from a fire hose here as a new commissioner,” he said.
Pinsky, whose agency doles out energy grants, said, “I knew climate and the environment but not energy.” He also marveled at the types of conversations he finds himself having as MEA director, noting that he’s had to reach out to the Defense Department, the Coast Guard and NASA to advocate for the state’s offshore wind energy ambitions.
“I never thought I’d be talking to them when I took this job,” he said.
Barve and Pinsky weren’t the only panelists Wednesday: They were joined by Kathy Magruder, the director of the Maryland Clean Energy Center, and William Ellis, the director of governmental affairs for Pepco. Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who combines Pinky’s activist streak with Barve’s wonkier tendencies on climate and energy, served as the panel moderator.
But Pinsky and Barve held the floor far longer than anyone else. Introducing Pinsky, Charkoudian joked that his reward for passing the climate bill was “trying to figure out how to implement it.” She called Barve “a frequent flier at MACo.”
In fact, it’s the Maryland Department of the Environment that has the biggest role in implementing the Climate Solutions Now Act, including figuring out how to hit the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 60% by 2031.
“It’s nice to have written a lot of it but have someone else required to implement it,” Pinsky said, name-checking Maryland Secretary of the Environment Serena McIlwain.
But in fact, both of the ex-lawmakers’ agencies have a role to play — and both men have been empowered by new Gov. Wes Moore (D) to put their principles and legislative skills into practice. The Maryland Energy Administration appeared to be an afterthought for Moore’s predecessor, former Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and Moore and Pinsky aim to change that, with a succession of new priorities for the once-moribund agency. And Moore has been able to remake the PSC, choosing three new commissioners this year for the five-member body.
Barve said that considering the climate impacts of the proposals that come before the commission is one of his priorities.
“While our No. 1 job is to make sure your rates are reasonable, we don’t want to do it by building more coal plants,” he said. “Decarbonization is a team sport. One of the things I’m excited about in the Moore-Miller administration is we’re not going to be as siloed as we have been in the past.”
Pinsky, as he did in the legislature, noted that the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy sources is inevitably going to run into opposition, and that political and policy leaders need to work around the naysayers.
“We’re going to need all hands on deck,” he said. “We’re going to need to change things. There are those who understand and who are totally on board. There are those who have their heads in the sand. And there are those who understand but only give lip service to the problem.”
Some members of the audience were impressed by what they heard.
“It’s great to see the incredible leadership up here,” said Shannon Moore, director of Frederick County’s Division of Energy and the Environment.
Jamie DeMarco, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a major advocate for the climate bill in 2021 and 2022, said, “I think both are doing a great job at their jobs. Pinsky is making the MEA a champion and a change agent. And Barve is trying to make the PSC a lean, mean green machine.”