Global warming fight goes on

Success of other bills leaves O'Malley camp unfazed by failure of greenhouse measure

General Assembly

April 09, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

The O'Malley administration plans to move forward with efforts to combat global warming, despite the legislature's rejection of a high-profile bill that would have curbed Maryland's greenhouse gas emissions, officials said yesterday.

Secretary of the Environment Shari T. Wilson said that even without the bill mandating a 25 percent emissions reduction by 2020, Gov. Martin O'Malley secured enough of his energy policy priorities during the legislative session that ended Monday to make progress on climate change.

"We didn't get the umbrella, but we got the pieces of the engine to move forward," Wilson said. "All in all, we're in pretty good shape."

Lawmakers passed all five of the O'Malley administration's energy bills, including an ambitious plan for reducing energy use 15 percent by 2015, plus a doubling of renewable power, such as wind and solar, to be generated in the state by 2022.

Environmentalists, though disappointed by the failure of the Global Warming Solutions Act in the final hours of the 90-day legislative session, took heart in the energy legislation, which they say should advance the cause significantly.

"I think that the climate on balance was a really big winner during the 2008 Maryland session," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "The fact that the renewable electricity standard was doubled to 20 percent is by itself astonishing."

Environmentalists spent three years lobbying lawmakers to approve an initial goal of 7.5 percent from renewable energy sources, he said.

The global warming bill failed after a strong push by labor unions and industry and despite efforts by proponents, including the O'Malley administration, to mollify their objections. Members of the United Steelworkers, who represent 5,000 employees of steel, brick, cement, chemical and paper plants statewide, were a nearly constant presence in Annapolis at hearings and in the galleries to demonstrate their concern that pollution reductions required by the warming bill could cost them their jobs.

The bill's original long-range requirement of reducing greenhouse gases by 90 percent by 2050 - heralded by environmentalists as one of the most ambitious proposals in the nation - was downgraded to a goal. The bill passed the Senate, but with an amendment sought by manufacturers and unions that would require state environmental officials to get legislative approval of their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Opponents then bottled up the bill in House committees until the final hours of the session.

Wilson said that over the weekend, administration officials had offered to include language in the bill saying that her department would not take any steps that might reduce employment at the state's manufacturing facilities.

But she said that on Monday it became apparent that that assurance wouldn't be enough for some union representatives and industry lobbyists.

"I think the problem was that obviously there were a large number of us, including most prominently labor, who were very concerned about the potential impacts of what was, after all, one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation the General Assembly has ever considered," said Michael C. Powell, a lobbyist for the Maryland Industrial and Technology Alliance, a group of manufacturers.

With a batch of amendments being offered by proponents and opponents alike and the session ticking to a close, members of the House Economic Matters Committee opted to let the bill die.

"I think we just ran out of time," said Del. Brian J. Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat who was a co-sponsor of the bill. Mindful of the backlash to the legislature's 1999 decision to deregulate electric generation, lawmakers feared making last-minute decisions on a complex measure that might have unintended consequences, he said.

Tidwell and other environmentalists said they believe workers anxious about their jobs were misled by industry lobbyists. But Powell, the industrial and technology alliance lobbyist, said he would be happy to work with advocates over the next year in crafting a plan to deal with global warming.

So did Jim Strong, representative of the United Steelworkers.

"I don't look at it as a failure," Strong said of the bill. "I look at it as a failure to communicate with stakeholders."

He said his union is committed to addressing global warming but was concerned about state actions that might hinder Maryland industry's ability to compete.

But Tidwell, the climate activist, said Congress and the federal government tend to follow the lead of state governments on issues such as this one.

The state already is moving to regulate carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of the Environment proposed a cap-and-trade system that would set a ceiling next year on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-, oil- and natural gas-fired power plants, with a 10 percent reduction required by 2019.

Those rules stem from Maryland's move last year to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - a cooperative effort of 10 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states to fight global warming.

Under the initiative, carbon dioxide emission "allowances" are to be auctioned off later this year for power plants. State officials project the auction could yield $80 million to $140 million a year, most of which will be used for conservation and greenhouse gas reduction programs.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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