O’Malley’s ambitious initiatives are clipped by a faltering economy
An eco-friendly governor, an activist attorney general and a willing legislature arrived at the State House this year with plans to make Maryland a testing ground for some of the nation’s most ambitious environmental policies.
Then the economy tanked, and they found that it’s not easy being green.
Much of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s environmental agenda is headed toward passage in the General Assembly – at least in some form. He has backed new goals for reducing energy consumption, boosting renewable energy and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.
But the administration has had to temper many of those proposals when confronted with questions about the impact on businesses and energy costs for consumers. Even labor unions, a loyal constituency for O’Malley, fought to water down a global-warming bill.
Lawmakers have put restrictions on a proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions. They delayed O’Malley’s proposed mandates for renewable power.
They diverted money from his energy efficiency programs in favor of immediate electrical rate relief. And they made concessions to developers and local officials in a shoreline protection bill.
“When the country is in a recession, and we’re having foreclosures, and we’re confronting all of those issues, clearly those kinds of debates take precedence,” said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
O’Malley, a Democrat, has argued that administration proposals would spur the economy, lower utility bills and help the environment. But he concedes that some ideas have been a tough sell amid the deteriorating economy.
“It’s hard to connect all those dots when you’re facing the foreclosure of your home,” O’Malley said in an interview. “Everyone is anxious, and everyone is fearful; and in that context, the pressure of paying your bills today can blind us to the importance of making a better tomorrow.”
Despite the pushback in the legislature, environmentalists say that the overall result of the session represents a significant endorsement of their agenda. Even the bills that have been scaled back – or seen funding trimmed or deadlines delayed – represent far-reaching environmental initiatives, they contend.
“A lot of stuff is going forward that’s still strong and good,” said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland. “How strong they end up after going through the whole process is the question.”
Some lawmakers and lobbyists have said the environmental and energy proposals would have dire consequences. They have drawn comparisons to the state’s effort to deregulate the energy industry, an idea championed by the legislature a decade ago and now lampooned by many of those same lawmakers, who say it only led to higher electrical rates.
“No one should think that these bills have been diluted to no effect. They are still big policy shifts,” said Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland. “This has huge ramifications for our lifestyle and our economy.”
Annapolis took on a decidedly green bent last year when O’Malley took office.
The 2007 session kicked off with multiple screenings of Al Gore’s global-warming film An Inconvenient Truth. Lawmakers passed a bill aimed at reducing emissions from cars and trucks, and enacted legislation to ban dishwasher detergent containing phosphate, one of the bay’s main pollutants. Environmentalists declared that a new era had begun.
But they have seen setbacks since then. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved late last year to block so-called “clean cars” laws. Maryland and other states responded with a lawsuit.
Also, Maryland lawmakers recently acted to delay the phosphorus detergent ban by six months, largely to appease large companies such as Procter & Gamble, which makes Cascade detergent and has a plant in Hunt Valley.
“That was one big misstep of the session,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of a preservation group, 1000 Friends of Maryland.
Nonetheless, O’Malley made environmental and energy initiatives a major part of his modest agenda this year. Several of his proposals have drawn little opposition, such as a bill to require green construction practices for state buildings and schools. But others have faced resistance.
Opponents argued that such mandates artificially raise the price of electricity, and Republicans criticized the administration for not addressing the need for new power plants and more transmission-line capacity.
The administration contends that an average household eventually would save $190 a year through reduced energy use, and that renewable power targets would add less than 1 percent to electric rates. Still, many lawmakers were worried.
The result: A two-year delay in ramping up renewable energy requirements to allow time for projects to come online, plus money diverted from conservation programs to small utility-bill rebates and additional aid to low-income families behind on their bills.
“We had to spend a lot of time in the session talking about more budget cuts, and we thought we’d be able to focus on problem-solving,” said Malcolm D. Woolf, the director of the Maryland Energy Administration. “Everyone was a whole lot more sensitive to the economic impact of these bills.”
Another priority of O’Malley and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler – overhauling the state’s 24-year-old law restricting bayshore development – has been weakened, in part because of the administration’s desire for consensus from developers, environmentalists and state officials.
The administration accepted an amendment that leaves local governments in control of enforcing the law, but environmentalists concluded that other features of the bill, including sanctions against contractors who violate the law, were worth the trade-off.
“The environmental community has learned you can’t expect it all,” said Fred Kelly of the Severn Riverkeeper watchdog group. “We think we need to compromise a little bit more to get the laws actually enforced.”
The Senate approved the bill Friday only after changing a key provision, reducing the proposed shoreline setback for new buildings in rural areas from 300 feet to 200 feet. The current law requires only a 100-foot setback. The House of Delegates accepted that change yesterday.
The bill facing the toughest slog may be the most far-reaching. The Global Warming Solutions Act would require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, with a goal of 90 percent reduction by 2050. The original proposal made the 90 percent figure a requirement, but industry opposition got it scaled back to a goal.
Though not part of O’Malley’s legislative agenda, he has embraced it. With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, Maryland is particularly vulnerable to the sea-level rise expected from global warming, he has said.
But it has drawn intense opposition from manufacturers and an unusual ally – labor unions. The United Steelworkers, which represents about 5,000 workers statewide, opposes the bill.
“I’ve spent more time in Annapolis the last month and a half than I have in my whole career, maybe,” said Jim Strong, a USW official. He said his union supports fighting global warming with national legislation but opposes Maryland’s bill for fear it would drive manufacturers to other states.
With dozens of steelworkers looking on, the Senate approved the warming bill – but with an amendment sought by manufacturers and the AFL-CIO. That change would require the state Department of the Environment to get legislative approval for each step it wants to takes to reduce the greenhouse gases tied to global warming. The House has not acted on the bill.
Activists, who note that other labor unions support the bill, still hope to get it tweaked to clarify the agency’s authority to take some steps without legislative review. They say the 25 percent reduction is achievable through incentives included in the energy-efficiency legislation.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and sponsor of the bill, argues that the 90 percent goal and the shorter term mandate still represent a major step for Maryland.
“It could be one of the most significant environmental legislative sessions we’ve had if all goes well,” Pinsky said.
“For the most part, they’re still strong bills,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and veteran environmental advocate. “But it’s hard to tell where they’ll end up.”
By Laura Smitherman and Timothy B. Wheeler | Sun reporters
6 April 2008