Some Successand Many Disappointmentsfrom the 2011 Maryland General Assembly Session
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by David O'Leary and Alana Wase |
At the start the outlook for the 2011 Maryland General Assembly session was good. Maryland had re-elected Governor Martin OMalley, and the make-up of the state Senate changed such that we anticipated progress on environmental issues. The governor accepted one of the environmental community priorities as his own, and announced plans to introduce a bill to drive the construction of an offshore wind farm near Ocean City. Led by a new legislative committee chair, Chris Bryan and joined by new committee members, Sierra Club activists worked closely with other environmental, community, and labor organizations and with state government agencies on offshore wind and on our other priorities. (Meet Chris and the legislative committee in Marta Vogels wonderful profile on page 15.) By the end of the session in mid-April, however, disappointment and frustration were strong for the environmental community, especially those in the Sierra Club who spent significant time and energy on environmental, public health, and good government initiatives.
Some Success—and Many Disappointments—from the 2011 Maryland General Assembly Session
By David O’Leary and Alana Wase—At the start the outlook for the 2011 Maryland General Assembly session was good. Maryland had re-elected Governor Martin O’Malley, and the make-up of the state Senate changed such that we anticipated progress on environmental issues. The governor accepted one of the environmental community priorities as his own, and announced plans to introduce a bill to drive the construction of an offshore wind farm near Ocean City. Led by a new legislative committee chair, Chris Bryan and joined by new committee members, Sierra Club activists worked closely with other environmental, community, and labor organizations and with state government agencies on offshore wind and on our other priorities. (Meet Chris and the legislative committee in Marta Vogel’s wonderful profile on page 15.) By the end of the session in mid-April, however, disappointment and frustration were strong for the environmental community, especially those in the Sierra Club who spent significant time and energy on environmental, public health, and good government initiatives.
Sierra Club priorities for the General Assembly session included creation of a fee for disposable shopping bags, and creating a framework for strong regulations on natural gas drilling in the state, in addition to the offshore wind bill. The legislative committee and various conservation activists also reviewed and offered testimony on a variety of bills: restrictions on invasive plants, reduction in use of various toxic chemicals, energy efficiency, campaign finance reform, and other good government bills. As frequently happens, bills were introduced that the Sierra Club opposed, including one that increased incentives for electricity generation from incinerating trash.
Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency
One of the top priorities for Sierra Club is the transition to a clean-energy economy through use of renewable energy and by increasing our energy efficiency. In Maryland, offshore wind is the largest renewable energy resource. The wind in the ocean is stronger and steadier than on-shore wind, and there is more space for larger turbines. Throughout the summer and fall of 2010, members of the chapter’s energy team worked in coordination with chapter staff member Alana Wase and other organizations to plan our campaign and raise awareness of the potential for offshore wind through town hall meetings and other events. Governor O’Malley agreed to sponsor a bill to require Maryland utilities to enter into long-term contracts that would be used for financing of a large offshore wind project to produce between 400 and 600 megawatts of power (about the same as a large coal plant).
Starting in December and carrying through the session, meetings were held with key committee members, and a rally on the opening day of session received significant media attention. We worked with labor unions (especially the United Steelworkers), and executives from a manufacturing company with plans to open a new facility in Salisbury, to emphasize the job creation and economic potential of building an offshore wind farm. Despite the many benefits, the utility companies, particularly Constellation, lobbied and testified against the bill to its eventual demise. The Maryland Manufacturing Industry and the Maryland Retailers Association raised concerns that cost impacts would be too large. An amendment was then added to cap rate impacts at $2/month or 2% of large industry’s electricity bills. Nonetheless, we were not successful in overcoming concerns about the electricity rate impacts and the bill did not come to committee vote in either chamber.
The chapter also lobbied in favor of a bill to require disclosure of energy use in commercial buildings and a bill to clean up some problems with how solar system owners are reimbursed for generating electricity (net metering). The net metering bill passed; the energy disclosure bill did not.
As noted above, a bill was introduced to increase and extend incentives for electricity generation from trash incineration. Sierra Club along with several other environmental organizations, vigorously opposed this bill but it passed through the Senate Finance committee and full Senate very quickly with no votes in opposition. We ramped up our opposition campaign before the bill was voted in the House of Delegates to explain our concerns about air and water pollution from incinerators. We also explained how trash incineration reduces the motivation for effective recycling programs, since the incinerator is paid for based on the amount of trash being burned. The bill was amended in the House to reduce the number of out-of- state incinerators that would qualify for the incentives, but the bill still passed by a close vote. The amended bill returned to the Senate for a final vote, where it again passed by only a few votes on the very last day of the session. Our next step was an uncommon one for the chapter—calling for the governor to veto the bill. In conjunction with other environmental, community, and public health organizations, we generated thousands of calls and email messages in support of a veto. A letter signed by dozens of organizations was sent, and many General Assembly members also requested a veto based on our encouragement. But despite the opposition, the governor signed the bill.
Disposable Bag Fee and Other Waste Reduction Bills
For the third year, we worked with other groups promoting a bill to require that retail and grocery stores charge 5 cents for each disposable bags used by customers (see the article on this issue in the Spring 2011 issue of Chesapeake). This year, the campaign was much broader and more visible. Thousands of “Trash Free Maryland” postcards were collected from around the state throughout the fall and winter, then delivered to the offices of senators and delegates. Sierra Club member Barb Krupiarz conducted research on the issue and visited dozens of delegates throughout February and March. The bill had a very successful hearing in the Senate Education Health and the Environment Committee, and yet, despite pressure from colleagues and environmental groups, committee chair Joan Carter Conway held the bill, killing it. The plastic bag industry hired multiple lobbyists at critical moments and made robo-calls into key legislative districts. By early April, despite our efforts, the bill did not receive a vote in either the Senate or House committee, and hence did not pass.
Once again, several bills were introduced to address waste reduction and recycling, but only small steps forward were taken, such as passage of a bill to require a pilot study of recycling in transit stations. The chapter is represented on the Solid Waste Study Group created as a result of legislation that passed in 2010, so we should be better positioned to make progress on this front in the 2012 session, after the final report of that Study Group is completed.
Regulations for Natural Gas Drilling (“Fracking”)
Problems with a new technology for natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) were increasing throughout the fall of 2010 in many states, including neighboring Pennsylvania. The chapter expressed many concerns about drilling and encouraged the Department of the Environment ( MDE) to place tight regulations on the practice in Maryland. As the 2011 session approached, residents of western Maryland contacted the chapter with concerns, as the natural gas companies had applied for permits to drill in the area.
Given the new national focus on fracking, many environmental groups joined with the chapter and western Maryland activists to work with Delegate Heather Mizeur, who took a special interest in this issue, Delegate Marvin Holmes, and Senator Brian Frosh, to craft a bill requiring careful study of the impacts of various gas drilling practices, and to require MDE to develop more comprehensive regulations. The study would be funded by fees imposed on the gas companies, and no permits would be issued until well into the process. Leaders from the Department of Natural Resources, the governor’s office, and local governments were also involved in these discussions. The bill, which addressed a broad range of impacts, such as air and water quality protection, and community impacts such as truck traffic congestion and noise, passed overwhelmingly in the House of Delegates. A bill offering a rapid path to drilling was voted down as new information about threats to water quality and accidents with drilling continued in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Despite the success with the strong bill in the House, its companion bill stalled in the Senate Education Health and the Environment Committee where, as with the bag bill, the chair, Senator Joan Carter Conway, held the bill. Lobbyists from the natural gas drilling companies were allowed an opportunity to negotiate changes to the bill, but advocates for strong protections, including MDE, refused to compromise on key points that would allow a rush to permits for production drilling. Negotiations continued until the final few days before the end of session. But Senator Conway never brought the bill to a vote, thus killing it.
However, in early June, Governor O’Malley issued an executive order requiring a study that will continue into the summer of 2014, closely matching the requirements outlined in the bill.
There were a couple of bright spots during the session, and other disappointments. A bill was introduced to ban and restrict the sales of various invasive plants. Many Sierra Club members have participated in invasive plant removal projects around the state for the past several years, so Marc Imlay organized an effort asking everyone to contact their elected officials in support of the bill. Fortunately, this bill passed!
Another bill was passed to reduce nutrients in lawn fertilizer, to reduce lawn fertilizer applications, and to educate residents about appropriate levels of fertilizer application. This new law should help to reduce this significant source of nutrient pollution in our water. In addition, bills were passed to increase penalties for poaching of oysters and rockfish.
Some bills addressing toxic substances were introduced. Restrictions on the sale of products containing the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) were extended. However, bills to ban the use of the chemical herbicide atrazine and to ban use of chicken feed containing arsenic did not pass. In addition, a bill that would create a new framework for identifying and regulating toxic chemicals in the state did not pass.
Sierra Club member Cliff Terry wrote and delivered testimony on several bills that would reform some of the problems with how campaigns are financed in Maryland. These bills and others to increase transparency in state and local government also did not pass.
The 2011 General Assembly session was disappointing in many ways, but we were able to lay the groundwork for progress on these important issues moving forward. The General Assembly members were educated about important environmental issues and we developed relationships with many of the new members. The chapter legislative committee was strengthened with a new chair and new members. The level of activity and involvement by chapter members increased and we worked with new partners from the labor community. Our challenge for 2012 is to build on this progress and to pass more good legislation to protect and improve our environment. Discussions are already underway regarding our priority campaigns. We need your help for 2012, so please call the chapter office at 301-277-7111 and let us know which issue you would like to support. n
David O’Leary is the Maryland Chapter’s conservation chair, and serves on the chapter excom. Alana Wase is a law student at the University of Maryland. At the time of this writing, she was the conservation coordinator for the Maryland Chapter.
> 2011 Table of Contents