MDE, industry blocked a bill

Both opposed tougher standards on air pollution

December 18, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

As lawmakers approached a critical vote on a bill designed to reduce the state's chronic air pollution, Maryland environmental Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick faxed a letter to a powerful state senator arguing against the legislation.

The Maryland Department of the Environment opposed going beyond federal regulations, Philbrick's letter said, because tougher state standards would "lead to significantly higher costs" for local power plants.

But the words in the March 23 letter to the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Thomas M. Middleton, were not written by Philbrick, state documents show. An hour and a half earlier, a lobbyist for the state's largest owner of power plants, Constellation Energy, e-mailed the language to Philbrick's agency for his signature on state letterhead.

The adoption of the power industry's argument as the position of Maryland's environment agency was part of a closely coordinated campaign to kill a bill that supporters said would have helped clean the state's notoriously dirty air.

Leading this behind-the-scenes teamwork to defeat the "four pollutants" or "4P" bill was a former Constellation lobbyist, Jonas Jacobson, who since June 2004 has been deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. He is one of four people from business - two from Constellation - whom the Ehrlich administration picked to run the environment agency.

"4P is DEAD!!!!" Jacobson wrote to Philbrick and others in an e-mail when a General Assembly committee voted down the bill March 24. "Apparently died 4 votes for 12 against!!!!!!!! Ain't the beer cold!"

Correspondence

A review by The Sun of more than 50 e-mails to and from MDE officials, obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act, reveals that Jacobson worked closely with his former employer to defeat a measure that could have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although portions of the e-mail texts were blacked out by state officials before release to the newspaper, the parts that remain describe meetings between the power industry and the MDE, including a joint "strategy session," and cooperative drafting of a "fact sheet" and letters by the MDE and Constellation.

Philbrick said he doesn't remember the letter to Middleton, pointing out that his staff hands him many things to sign. But he and Jacobson said they're proud that their agency worked against a "bad" bill that they contend might have led to the closing of coal-fired power plants, blackouts and higher electricity rates.

"The Ehrlich administration believed that this was very bad public policy that would hurt Marylanders in many ways," Jacobson said. The law "would have wreaked havoc on our electric reliability system."

Environmentalists like Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, say these gloomy predictions are scare tactics, given the soaring revenue of energy firms like Constellation. The real problem, Pinsky and other critics argue, is that the state's environmental agency is run by the business interests it's supposed to police.

"The Ehrlich administration has put protecting industry first and protecting the environment second," Pinsky said. Enforcement actions by the agency against polluters have fallen by almost 40 percent over the past two years, state reports show.

Pollution limits

The four pollutants bill would have required the owners of the state's seven largest coal-fired power plants to spend more than $2 billion adding filtration equipment to reduce their mercury pollution by 90 percent by 2011, sulfur dioxide by 79 percent, nitrogen oxide by 65 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent by 2020.

These limits would cover more pollutants than the federal regulations issued last March by the Bush administration and the state air rules proposed by Ehrlich on Nov. 17. Bush's "Clean Air Interstate Rule" and Ehrlich's "Maryland Clean Power Rule" would require less reduction in mercury pollution than the four pollutants bill and would not address gases blamed for global warming.

At the center of the lobbying against the bill was Jacobson, the former Constellation lobbyist serving as the No. 2 official at the MDE. He is also helping to coordinate the writing of Ehrlich's proposed air rules, which are being discussed with industry but have not been released to the public, agency officials said.

A Jan. 4 e-mail from Jacobson to the head of his agency's air division makes clear that Jacobson led the state's effort against the four pollutants bill. "From here until the end of Session, it is critical that you stay in close contact with me ... regarding California Car and 4P legislation," Jacobson wrote, referring to another air pollution bill opposed by the MDE. "I will be directing the strategy on these bills for the Department."

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