Renewed green emphasis scores successes for environmentalists

Environmentalists have some success in session

General Assembly

April 14, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Color Gov. Martin O'Malley's first legislative session light green.

Environmentalists scored several key victories in the recently ended session. The Maryland General Assembly approved a law to clean up car exhaust that had been endorsed by the new Democratic governor. Lawmakers also voted for measures to tighten controls of storm-water runoff from developments, require power companies to buy some electricity from solar generators, protect diamondback terrapin and cut phosphates pollution in household dish detergent.

However, lawmakers did not approve the top priority of many concerned about the Chesapeake Bay: a proposal to impose more than $100 million a year in fees on developers for programs to reduce farm fertilizer runoff into the bay.

Other environmental measures that failed included a bill that would have required all businesses to cut emissions of global warming gases, and legislation that would have forced all new state buildings to meet energy-efficient "green" standards. It was dropped in favor of an advisory panel.

Still, the session reflected a renewed emphasis on environmental issues in Annapolis under the new Democratic governor. While former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed successfully for the "flush tax," which pays for upgrades to sewage treatment plants, he also fought tougher vehicle emission standards. O'Malley signaled in his State of the State address that pro-environmental measures would top his early agenda.

"It's a very good year for the environment," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland. "Those are very strong steps forward. Obviously, a lot more needs to be done, in terms of global warming. And the bay needs more than just storm-water controls."

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group, said the increased emphasis on environmental issues this year was part of a national trend. "I think it's part of all the national attention being given to energy and global warming," Fry said.

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor plans to sign several of the environmental bills on April 24.

During a tour of a "green" school in Germantown on Wednesday, O'Malley predicted that the "green fund" and green buildings proposals -- both of which he supported this year -- would succeed in future years.

"I don't think of those issues so much as stalled rather as not yet complete," O'Malley said at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School. "I think there's a lot of momentum behind those bills and those ideas, and I'm sure that their passage will one day happen, and I think it will happen soon."

Looming over the session was a clash between the state's promises to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and a lack of money. Maryland is facing a $1.5 billion shortfall next year, but it's also several years and hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting commitments to neighboring states to improve the bay's water quality by 2010.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said the environmental bills approved this session were a "mixed bag" that included some that were poorly written and will hurt consumers.

Pipkin said electricity rates will rise because of the new state mandate that power companies such as BGE buy 2 percent of their electricity from solar panel generators by the year 2020. He called this an expensive subsidy for the solar industry.

"It's a sweetheart deal at the expense of ratepayers," Pipkin said. "Last year, we had all this pain for ratepayers --and this year we have a bill that significantly increases costs to consumers."

The state's Public Service Commission, now controlled by O'Malley appointees, plans to look at ways to ease the impact of BGE's proposed 50 percent rate increase set to take effect June 1.

Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, praised the solar bill as an important step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"This is historic, a monumental achievement. ... We are very likely to see a huge explosion of solar rooftops in Maryland," Tidwell said.

By far the biggest victory of environmentalists this spring was in filtering car and truck exhaust. O'Malley teamed up with the Democratic leaders in both chambers to pass the Clean Cars bill, which had been opposed by Ehrlich, a Republican, and auto dealers.

The law will require a 30 percent cut in global warming gases from all new cars and trucks registered in Maryland within a decade, as well as a smaller reduction in smog-forming pollutants. Auto buyers are expected to pay about $1,000 more per vehicle as Maryland follows tighter regulations created by California and adopted by 10 other states.

"Some of the main causes of asthma and other respiratory disease in Maryland come from auto emissions, and so do some of the major pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay," said state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. "So that's two major hazards that we will be lessening somewhat."

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