O'Malley makes the wrong call on waste-to-energy

May 18, 2011

Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an unusually detailed and thoughtful statement to explain his decision yesterday to sign legislation that will make waste-to-energy incineration a Tier 1 renewable resource in Maryland, on par with wind and solar power. The bill had turned into a battle ground between the companies that build and operate incinerators and virtually all major environmental groups in the state, which opposed the bill. It is clear that the governor considered the issue carefully and went beyond the talking points on both sides. For that, he deserves credit. The question is more complicated than either side acknowledged, and the decision of whether to sign or veto was a tough call. Still, he made the wrong choice.

Mr. O'Malley justified his decision by noting that the state has an aggressive goal to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2022 and that it will need a diverse array of sources to make that happen. That's certainly true; no offshore wind farm is going to get the state close to that threshold by itself. And he said that on balance, a well regulated waste-to-energy program is better for the environment than the combination of landfilling trash (which leads to methane production, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and coal-fired generation, which is now responsible for 55 percent of Maryland's electricity. He promised strict regulation of mercury emissions from waste-to-energy plants and an enhanced effort to keep mercury out of the trash stream.

That's all well and good, but the governor's explanation is limited in its perspective. Burning trash may be better than what we do now, but it is not the ideal way to produce clean energy. Environmentalist opponents of the bill are right that it would be better to reduce use of landfills through recycling and to reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants by switching to energy sources that don't burn anything at all, such as wind and solar.

Their argument is not a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The question here is not whether we allow waste-to-energy plants, or even whether we encourage them. We already send 17 percent of our trash to incinerators, and plans are underway to add at least two more such plants in the state. Waste-to-energy is a part of our energy portfolio, whether it is considered a Tier 1 resource or not.

But this bill is a case of the good being an enemy of the perfect. That's not because adding incinerators will somehow reduce recycling; that's a straw man argument proponents of waste-to-energy put up in order to knock down. It's because allowing Tier 1 incentives for waste-to-energy will diminish the value of the incentives for even cleaner forms of energy. Maryland's energy program requires utilities to provide increasing percentages of their loads from renewable sources or to buy credits from renewable energy producers. Adding existing and new waste-to-energy plants to the mix as Tier 1 resoruces will reduce the value of those credits and make it more difficult for the cleanest forms of energy, such as wind farms, to get financing.

If the governor were making a decision on this bill at the same time that he was signing his initiative to guarantee a market for a wind farm off Maryalnd's Atlantic coast, these calculations would look different, but he's not. That signature piece of environmental legislation from the governor died in the legislature this year. As it happens, one of the key proponents of the waste-to-energy bill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, was also instrumental in the decision to put the wind bill out for a summer study. With a veto, Mr. O'Malley could have held out this bill for a its own summer study, of sorts, and come back next year with a comprehensive package of bills that recognize the benefits of waste-to-energy while increasing, rather than diminishing, the incentives for wind and other green energy sources. But now that leverage is lost.

--Andrew A. Green

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