Senate Moves to Pass Climate Solutions Now Act After a Marathon Floor Session – Josh Kurtz

After four hours of debate and a series of failed attempts to amend it, a sweeping climate change bill won preliminary approval in the Maryland Senate on Thursday.
The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 would set a statewide goal, for 2030, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% of emission levels recorded in 2006. For 2045, it would set the emissions goal to net-zero.
The bill would achieve this, in part, by requiring owners of large buildings to gradually reduce their buildings’ emissions by retrofits — such as insulating windows and installing heat pumps.
The bill’s sponsors are Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and 26 other senators.
Four counterpart bills in the House are yet to receive committee votes.
As the marathon debate started in the Senate, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), in a statement, blasted the bill as a “reckless and controversial energy tax bill,” and noted a 2020 report that ranks Maryland at the top for emission reductions out of 41 states.
But Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, rejected the notion that this legislation was a “energy tax bill.”
“We are already paying the price for not investing in the clean energy future in higher public health costs and energy costs,” she said in a statement. “Maryland is no longer the leader in reducing climate pollution, despite being one of the three most vulnerable states to climate change and sea-level rise.”
While introducing their amendments, Republican senators called the climate bill “symbolic,” arguing that a tiny state like Maryland could not move the needle much on global climate change.
Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) said the state needs to focus instead on climate solutions at least starting at the regional level.
Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Cecil) introduced an amendment that would make the bill’s net-zero emission goal by 2045 contingent on similar legislation in nearby states — New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania — which he said would turn the bill into a “regional solution rather than just a single state solution.”
But Pinsky said he does not think the state should wait until “the least among us is ready to move,” and urged the Senate to oppose the amendment, which failed in a 17-29 vote.
Simonaire also took issue with costs for retrofitting buildings and offered an amendment that would cap the annual fee that building owners would have to pay if they do not meet the new emission reduction standards at $25,000.
The bill would require building owners to pay a fee that is more than “the social cost of greenhouse gases” — or the dollar figure that would be determined by industry experts, based on economic impacts associated with emitting one ton of a greenhouse gas. This rate would come from the Maryland Department of the Environment or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whichever is greater, according to the bill.
Simonaire also introduced an amendment that would require the governor to earmark $50 million in the budget for each of the next three years to help buildings meet emission reduction standards. His $50 million proposal was ten times the amount the bill calls for: a $5 million allocation for each of the next three years.
“Fifty million dollars — there’s a lot of talk,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee. He said the appropriations are meant to be one-time grants to the building industry and urged the Senate to vote against the amendment, which failed in a 5-42 vote.
The bill also would require state-owned buildings to meet stricter emission reduction standards or pay a fee. When Simonaire asked where the state would get that money, Pinsky replied that it would come from the state budget.
Simonaire said paying fees from the state budget would hurt taxpayers.
“Our main opposition to this bill is that it places a harsh financial burden on the back of Marylanders while failing to deliver any measurable environmental benefits to save our planet,” Simonaire said.
But Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County), chair of the Finance Committee, argued that Maryland should serve as a role model “to show the rest [of the states] what is possible…because we are going to need the rest of these United States.”
“If you’re worried what kind of tax rates your grandchildren will pay, they won’t have a place on this planet to live,” Kelley said.
Sen. Stephen Hershey (R-Upper Shore) took issue with a section of the bill that he claimed would still allow counties to enact an all-electric building standard, which is stricter than what the bill calls for, and issue a “de facto ban on natural gas.”
Pinsky said the climate bill is not about banning certain energy sources. It does give local governments flexibility in setting their own building emission standards and sets a “floor” instead of a “ceiling” because the climate emergency is getting worse.
For example, Montgomery County is considering toughening its emission reduction standards for large buildings in order to meet its goal of carbon-free emissions by 2035. Howard County is also looking to increase energy efficiency in local government buildings to meet its goal of zero-emissions by 2050.
Hershey proposed an amendment that would require the Public Service Commission — which regulates the state’s public utilities — to approve local building energy performance standards to ensure that their plans would not impair the reliability of the state’s electric grid. The amendment was rejected in a 19-26 vote.
However, the Senate did approve a few proposals regarding school buildings.
It adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Christopher West (R-Baltimore County) that would require local school systems to consider installing solar panels on roofs of new school buildings. If school systems choose not to do so, they would have to give an explanation to the Interagency Commission on School Construction.
“This is to try to get people a little bit out of their comfort zone,” said Pinsky, who called this amendment “reasonable.”
Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) proposed requiring the state to study how much greenhouse gas school buildings emit so that the state has data to determine if it wants to mandate standards for them later. Currently, the bill exempts public and private school buildings from meeting the stricter building emission standards. The amendment passed in a 30-14 vote.
On Wednesday, Pinsky introduced ten amendments on the floor and the Senate adopted them Thursday.
One strikes the hotly contested requirement for new buildings to use electric power, rather than fossil fuels, to provide space and water heating by 2024.
A slew of utility companies, building interests and executives of oil and gas companies were vocal in their opposition against the measure, testifying that such a requirement goes “too far, too fast,” makes the state’s electric grid less reliable and lacks proper incentives — such as tax credits and subsidies — for buildings switching to electrification.
As amended, the bill would require the Public Service Commission to determine if there is enough capacity on the grid to support an all-electric building code in the future. It also would require buildings of 25,000 square feet or larger to reduce emissions by 30% of 2025 levels by 2035 and to net-zero by 2040. But it exempts private and public schools, agricultural buildings and historic buildings from the new standards.
“If we’re waiting for the next state, the next nation [to take climate action], nobody moves,” Pinsky said. “There’s not a message that’s going to fall down from God that’s going to say ‘do this tomorrow’ and there’s not one action that the planet can take — it really is starting with small steps.”
“So the only way for us to move forward is to do what we can do in our state and hope that…everyone else moves and then maybe our Congress will move,” Pinsky said.
Elizabeth Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.
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