Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Tuesday he'll sign a bill opposed by environmentalists that would grant financial incentives to facilities that produce power by burning trash.
O'Malley had said as recently as Friday that he hadn't made up his mind about the measure, which would treat power generated from waste incineration as renewable energy on par with solar, wind and geothermal.
More than three dozen environmental and clean-energy groups had signed a letter recently calling on O'Malley to veto the bill, which cleared the General Assembly last month in the final days of the 2011 legislative session. The opponents argued that allowing waste-to-energy plants to sell Tier 1 renewable energy credits would encourage more trash-burning in the state, discourage recycling and crowd out other, more desirable renewable energy projects.
But O'Malley said in a statement released late Tuesday afternoon that he didn't see the conflict, and he believes burning trash to produce power is better than depositing it in landfills. He contended that waste-to-energy plants in Harford and Montgomery counties co-exist with "robust" recycling programs in those localities, even as Marylanders send tons of solid waste to landfills daily.
State law requires 20 percent of Maryland's energy to come from renewable sources by 2022. The governor said the if state is to reach that goal, it needs "as much in-state generation as possible," including power from onshore and offshore wind, solar, from burning chicken manure and also from burning municipal garbage.
Some existing waste-burning facilities are already eligible for a less lucrative renewable energy credit. Under the legislation, those existing plants as well as facilities proposed to burn trash or shredded refuse in South Baltimore and in Frederick County would be eligible for Tier 1 renewable energy credits, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a major plant.
The governor's decision was yet another legislative setback this year for environmentalists, who saw most of their priorities defeated or deferred in Annapolis, including a measure pushed by O'Malley to provide millions in ratepayer-financed incentives for a large-scale offshore wind project off Ocean City.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Charles County Democrat who sponsored the waste-energy bill, welcomed the governor's support. He vowed to work with O'Malley and environmentalists to ensure that waste-to-energy plants don't crowd out other renewable endeavors, such as the offshore wind incentives he helped kill this year by sending them for further study.
Greg Smith of Community Research, one of the groups opposing the waste-energy bill, called the governor's decision "unfortunate."
"The fact is jurisdictions that have large incinerators still burn enormous quantities of recyclables," Smith said. He and others contended that waste-energy facilities release more climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal-burning power plants, and that their power is more costly than electricity produced from sources they consider truly renewable.
O'Malley did say he was concerned about the potential for toxic mercury pollution from such facilities. He directed the Maryland Department of the Environment to "strictly regulate" air emissions from both new and existing plants.