Clean air law enacted

PSC bill is challenged

Ehrlich signs law to cut power plant emissions

General Assembly

April 07, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

After fighting similar legislation for two years, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed a bill yesterday that will make Maryland one of a handful of states taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which most scientists believe cause global warming.

The Healthy Air Act, passed by veto-proof margins in the Senate and House of Delegates, also would reduce mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen pollution from the state's six largest coal-fired power plants by requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in filtration equipment. The law will supersede air pollution regulations that Ehrlich proposed as a cheaper alternative that would have allowed a slower pace in reductions in mercury emissions and would not have dealt with global warming.

"Together with the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act, today's announcement makes Maryland an undisputed national leader in air and water quality protection," Ehrlich said in a news release.

An amendment attached by Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat with a power plant in his district, allows the state to waive penalties if the cost of pollution-control equipment rises and could lead to significant rate increases for electricity.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he was pleased that Ehrlich signed the legislation. Pinsky said he received a scare last Friday when Ehrlich's staff initially refused to accept the legislation, saying it came after the governor's office closed at 5 p.m.

Pinsky said it was "sophomoric" for Ehrlich to attempt to take credit for the bill during a news conference yesterday while refusing to invite the sponsors to the bill-signing and having fought previously to kill the legislation.

"It's clear the governor was dragged kicking and screaming to sign this bill, and I think he did it for political expediency," Pinsky said. "He realized what a veto of the Healthy Air Act would do for his re-election efforts."

In a written statement yesterday, Ehrlich praised the law, saying it will "cut air pollution by record levels." But in a news release issued March 10, Ehrlich warned lawmaker not to vote for the bill. "This bill will dramatically increase the costs of electricity for consumers, force at least one power plant to close, and potentially cause rolling blackouts across Maryland," the governor said.

His administration worked closely with Constellation Energy Group, the state's largest owner of power plants, to defeat a similar proposal last year.

In March 2005, Ehrlich's deputy environmental secretary, Jonas Jacobson, a former Constellation Energy lobbyist, cheered, "Ain't the beer cold!" in an e-mail to colleagues at the Maryland Department of the Environment when their lobbying helped to kill the "Four Pollutants Bill."

Constellation and the Atlanta-based Mirant Corp., which each own three of the six power plants affected by the bill, are expected to add a combined $1.4 billion in air pollution control equipment by 2015 to meet new requirements.

About $1.1 billion of that is required under new federal air regulations released last year, said David Schoengold, an energy analyst who worked for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission from 1975 to 1990 and was hired by the National Wildlife Federation to analyze the Healthy Air Act.

Much of the money will be spent to add pollution-control devices called scrubbers. The technology has been available for three decades, but Maryland's plants haven't had to add them until now because the facilities were approved before the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. All new coal-fired plants must have scrubbers.

The Healthy Air Act will require slightly less than $355 million in pollution filtration systems, Schoengold said. That's about $15 million more than Ehrlich's proposed regulations would have mandated.

In an election year, Ehrlich jockeyed with the bill's sponsors for credit for attacking the state's chronic air quality problems. The Healthy Air Act would reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 80 percent by 2010, compared with 75 percent under the Ehrlich proposal. Both would cut nitrogen dioxide emissions by 69 percent by 2009 and sulfur dioxide emissions by about 78 percent by 2010.

Under the Healthy Air Act, but not Ehrlich's proposal, Maryland must join a coalition of seven other Northeastern states, including New York and New Jersey, that require their power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent by 2018.

Most scientists have concluded that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, melting glaciers and causing rising sea levels that increase storm damage along the Eastern Shore and other coastal areas.

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