O'Malley torn on trash-burning bill

Environmentalists strongly opposed

May 13, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The General Assembly session ended last month with defeat for many of Gov. Martin O'Malley's environmental initiatives, but he has one last chance to make a big impact — and it involves how Marylanders think of their garbage.

At issue is a bill, which passed with the blessing of O'Malley's energy secretary, elevating trash incineration to the pantheon of renewable energy sources that includes solar, wind and ocean tides. Waste-to-energy plants, including one under construction in Baltimore, would be able to sell valuable renewable energy credits, lawmakers decided.

But environmental groups have mounted an aggressive campaign to trash the bill — possibly with a rare O'Malley veto.

Opponents say the measure undercuts the carefully crafted financial incentives the state set up three years ago to coax solar and wind energy onto Maryland's energy grid. Environmentalists also think that the measure — by endorsing a system that relies on trash — sends a message that Marylanders should not recycle.

Forty-three pro-environment groups and 25 state legislators signed letters recently asking O'Malley to veto the bill. The American Lung Association separately requested a veto on health grounds, saying the incinerators release pollutants that cause or contribute to respiratory problems.

Asked Friday afternoon whether he's made a decision on the measure, O'Malley said: "No, I have not," before stepping into his black hybrid SUV.

O'Malley has three options: Sign the bill, veto it or allow the measure to become law without his signature by doing nothing on it until the end of May. O'Malley has vetoed half a dozen bills since being elected in 2006, and has allowed five others to become law without his signature.

The issue, which has kept Annapolis lobbyists guessing, is clearly weighing on the governor's mind. To kick off a roundtable discussion Friday at a Maryland Energy Summit in Timonium, O'Malley put the question to an audience of 300 power and environmental experts.

"If people are here to show their support for waste-to-energy, clap your hands," he said, generating a wave of applause.

"And there are people opposed?" he asked. An equal number responded.

Support for the bill is rooted in uncertainty about the ability of state utilities to reach a goal of buying 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022. Right now 5.5 percent comes from wind and solar.

If the utilities fall short of yearly benchmarks, they incur financial penalties. For example, next year utilities could be on the hook for $7.6 million if there aren't enough renewable sources available, according to a fiscal analysis.

Power plants get credits for producing renewable energy; those credits can be sold on the open market so utilities can meet the state's green goals.

On Friday the problem was illustrated with a PowerPoint slide showing how the O'Malley administration plans to meet the 2022 goals. Much of the chart was dominated by a purple chunk intended to represent offshore wind power.

However, the General Assembly rejected O'Malley's ambitious bid to encourage construction of a wind farm in the waters east of Ocean City. The proposal came with a multimillion-dollar price tag and stalled because lawmakers, fresh from a bruising election, realized that it would likely lead to higher energy rates.

Proponents for the bill argue that waste-to-energy plants are far less expensive than offshore wind projects. And, they say, the market already believes in the plants: Maryland already has one that would qualify, and two others are under construction.

"All of these wonderful programs, they all cost the consumer money," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a powerful Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees energy issues. "If there is a way we can have a cheaper renewable energy, what is wrong with that? It helps us afford these other things we are doing."

The senator, who killed the governor's wind bill this year, sending it to summer study, made his pitch to O'Malley for waste-to-energy plants in a brief meeting before the Energy Summit. Newer plants are much, much cleaner than the early-generation ones that belched nasty-smelling smoke into the air, he said.

The process includes scrubbing refuse for recyclables such as glass or metal that can't be incinerated. Then the operators heat the material. When they are done, there's far less waste for the landfills.

"Would you rather landfill it or use it for waste energy?" Middleton asked. "We are not recycling, so this is going to be landfilled. Reality has to set in somewhere in this debate."

The environmentalists use a similar argument. The new plant shows that the state does not need to provide incentives for waste-to-energy. Meeting the goal by moving the goal posts backwards is hardly good policy, said Alana Wase, Conservation Program Coordinator for the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"Burning trash isn't renewable," Wase said. "It takes resources to make trash."

If waste-to-energy plants can produce the valuable renewable energy credits, the currency will be cheapened for the solar and wind producers who have to spend more money for the same product.

Wase worries that waste-to-energy plants will end up being the dominant renewable source in Maryland.

Middleton says he won't let that happen. Already the state has created a set-aside for solar — 2 percent of the goal must be met from sunshine — and he pledged to create a similar set-aside for wind if needed.



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