A paler shade of green

O'Malley's ambitious initiatives are clipped by a faltering economy

Environmental agenda

April 06, 2008|By Laura Smitherman and Timothy B. Wheeler | Laura Smitherman and Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporters

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.

Among his most sweeping proposals are bills designed to reduce the state's energy consumption 15 percent by 2015 and to double the amount of renewable energy that power companies must provide for sale to customers. The clean energy goal - 20 percent of Maryland's power by 2022 - is higher than a target set by the District of Columbia but lower than New Jersey's.

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.

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