Lack of initiative

December 28, 2005

As pollution controls go, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is about as mild as a winter vacation on the Gulf of Mexico. The RGGI calls on the seven participating Northeastern states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 10 percent by 2019. That's reasonable. Plus, the law offers a great deal of industry-friendly flexibility, allowing plant owners to trade allowances and invest in offsetting projects. The RGGI could prove a model program for the nation, and its timing couldn't be better. Climate changes and rising sea levels could soon make our lives less like a gulf winter and more like New Orleans during hurricane season.

That's why it's so disappointing that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. isn't among the governors supporting the initiative. His chief steward of the environment raises the specter of rolling electrical brownouts or blackouts if Mr. Ehrlich dared agree to the plan. "It's easy for these states up in New England to sign on. They don't have the coal-fired power plants we do." Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick told a Sun reporter. "We are not going to do something that is going to be injurious to the citizens of Maryland."

Such overstatement strains credibility, particularly in a department that's already a kilowatt too cozy with the energy industry. Earlier this year, Mr. Philbrick lobbied against a bill restricting power plant pollution with a letter authored by a Constellation Energy lobbyist. It's bad enough when state legislators do this kind of thing, but a regulatory agency? One can only assume Constellation's merger with Florida Power & Light means the transfer of Mr. Philbrick's staff to Juno Beach.

So what might be RGGI's real impact? Supporters admit there is a financial cost to regulating polluters: The plan will likely raise rates by $3 to $24 per year for an average household. That's not something to relish, but neither is the Bush administration's failure to craft a reasonable national response to global warming. Make no mistake: There are actual coal-fired plants in the Northeast. But Republican governors such as New York's George E. Pataki and Connecticut's M. Jodi Rell also can recognize that their states must take steps to solve a problem the federal government has failed to address.

Global warming is a serious threat, particularly to a coastal state such as Maryland. Mr. Ehrlich has recently shown a willingness to crack down on other power plant pollutants, and that's commendable. But if RGGI isn't to his liking, he needs to offer a responsible alternative. California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington are also taking steps toward curbing carbon dioxide. Maryland should be, too.

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