[Baltimore Sun] Environmentalists underwhelmed by Maryland’s climate response | STAFF COMMENTARY

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You don’t need a flooded basement to be concerned about the growing impact of climate change these days. Maryland’s winters have gotten milder, the heatwaves more intense. There’s worsening coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers around the Chesapeake Bay. On the other hand, the state isn’t exactly a hotbed for climate deniers either. Gov. Wes Moore campaigned on making Maryland a global leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting clean energy. The Democratically controlled state legislature seems amenable to those goals, too. Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that lawmakers left Annapolis after wrapping up their annual 90-day legislative session on April 8 to universal applause from environmental groups.

Not exactly.

Quite a number of those who advocate for tougher action on climate change rated the Maryland General Assembly’s performance this year as mixed, at best. There were certainly some victories (and more about them in a moment), but one particular loss is especially irksome. In the final week of the session, lawmakers added budget language to delay stricter Building Energy Performance Standards, or BEPS. These regulations reduce emissions from large buildings, such as office towers or high-rise condominiums, that are more than 35,000 square feet. The rules have always been controversial, but environmentalists say this last-minute change of direction not only denies the promises made in the Climate Solutions Now Act, the state’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction legislation of just two years ago, but could cost the state a $195 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote BEPS.

“This is a wonky but devastating blow to climate policy,” reads a statement from the Sierra Club, Maryland PIRG and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The worry can be reduced to this: a fear that builders will install gas furnaces rather than switch to heat pumps. The BEPS change could set the effort back by years (as it also requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to set new benchmarks, a potentially time-consuming task). There is, however, hope that Maryland’s attorney general will reverse the action.

But it’s not the only frustration advocates are feeling. Lawmakers also took a pass on the proposed Better Buildings Act, requiring that new homes be energy efficient and better insulated, and the Responding to Emergency Needs from Extreme Weather (RENEW) Act, which would have billed oil and gas companies for a portion of the cost of natural disasters brought on by climate change. Lawmakers did, however, approve legislation to exempt data centers from restrictions on backup diesel generators, a move endorsed by Moore that may generate jobs but also air pollution.

There were victories, of course. The existing EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act, which gives financial incentives to help Marylanders, including low-income residents, switch to greener energy choices, was strengthened. Legislation to encourage utilities to invest in thermal energy networks (the Working for Accessible Renewable Maryland Thermal Heat (WARMTH) Act) was sent to the governor’s desk. As was the Brighter Tomorrow Act, which requires the Maryland Public Service Commission to create greater incentives to install solar energy systems.

That may seem a pretty good batting average by General Assembly standards. But environmental groups think that Maryland took an overall step backward, and that’s distressing given two of the state’s circumstances. First, with a Democratic governor and super majorities in both legislative chambers, Maryland should be, as Governor Moore has promised, a leader on climate policy. And second, as a coastal state, Maryland is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels that make climate change not a theoretical worry but an ever-present one. A projected 1-to-2-foot rise by 2050 could increase coastal flooding from an average of 11 days per year to 155, a devastating prospect from Ocean City to Annapolis.

No doubt legislators were a bit distracted this year, if not by the recent collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge then by their struggles to cover projected budget deficits, particularly in the area of transportation and K-12 education. The outlook next year may be better — or it may not if Donald Trump, who scoffs at curbing fossil fuel production or use, is returned to the White House. For now, environmentalists give lawmakers a grade of, if not outright failing, incomplete at best.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

 

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