Maryland’s foam ban and ambitious clean energy goals have become law. A bid to change how the state regulates its oyster industry got tripped up — at least for this year.
Gov. Larry Hogan last week let the foam ban and clean energy goals become law without his signature, along with more than 100 other bills passed in the waning days of the 90-day legislative session. But he vetoed eight bills, including one controversial Chesapeake Bay measure aimed at revising the state’s process for managing oysters.
The foam ban, which takes effect in mid-2020, forbids restaurants, grocery stores and other food providers from using foam cartons, plates or cups, and it outlaws their sale. A growing number of communities in Maryland have adopted local bans, but environmentalists pressed for a statewide prohibition, citing the role of such containers in littering water ways and contending they pose threats to wildlife and humans. Maryland is the second state to enact a statewide ban on foam food and drink containers. Maine passed a similar measure that became law in early May.
Although Hogan let the Clean Energy Jobs Act take effect, he voiced serious reservations. The law commits Maryland to getting 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to 100% by 2040 — goals surpassed by only a handful of other states to date. Hogan said that he supports the goals but the bill was “not clean enough” and doesn’t do enough to ensure that the jobs it intends to create are located in Maryland. He vowed to deliver his own clean energy plan to the legislature by early next year.
Environmental advocates made the clean energy bill a top priority this year, after two previous tries failed. They contend it will substantially reduce future carbon pollution while supporting thousands of jobs in the state developing solar and offshore wind industries. But some advocates objected to a loophole in the bill that treats trash incineration as a form of clean energy even as downwind communities complained their health is endangered by the facilities’ smokestack emissions. Supporters of the bill said the loophole was a needed concession to labor leaders worried about job losses if the facilities closed, and they vowed to work to eliminate it later.
The oyster management bill would have required the state Department of Natural Resources to follow “consensus recommendations” from a legislatively prescribed advisory commission on how to rebuild the state’s depleted bivalve stock, now estimated to be at 1–2% of historic levels.
Maryland environmental groups, led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, strongly backed the bill, and it passed by margins large enough to override Hogan’s veto. But Hogan nevertheless blocked it, and his press offices released a sharply worded statement complaining it undercut what his administration had done so far to revise state management of oysters.
Alison Prost, the Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director, issued a statement saying the group was not surprised by Hogan’s rejection of the bill, as he’d also vetoed a bill that provides legislative protection for five oyster sanctuaries undergoing large-scale reef restoration. The legislature overrode that veto. The General Assembly won’t have a chance to override this veto until January, unless a special legislative session is called before then.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Hogan said the bill was unclear, cumbersome and potentially unconstitutional. He said that by requiring the DNR to appoint a new Oyster Advisory Commission, it could delay for up to two years changes the DNR is now mulling to address overfishing and rebuild the oyster population.
The governor’s criticisms echoed those of watermen’s groups, who complained the bill hamstrings efforts the DNR has made during his administration. Environmentalists have complained that the Hogan administration has tilted fisheries management toward commercial interests, while watermen contend the legislature has sided with environmentalists to thwart the seafood industry.
Hogan accused lawmakers and environmental advocates, singling out the Bay Foundation by name, of making an “end run” on an earlier agreement among often-disputing watermen and environmentalists over revising oyster management in the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers. That effort, dubbed OysterFutures, made a series of recommendations, including allowing commercial harvesting again in at least one of the state’s oyster sanctuaries in those rivers. The sanctuary bill blocked that move.
Hogan also criticized a “lack of transparency” in the oyster management bill, which would have exempted the advisory commission from the state’s Open Meetings law.
“My administration strongly opposes secret backroom deal-making that will endanger the State’s long-term oyster restoration efforts,” he said, “especially at a time when we are just making measurable progress.”
Supporters said the secrecy would enable panel members to have more candid discussions, but the Annapolis Capital saw that as a fatal flaw. The paper, which recently received a Pulitzer Prize for its editorials, urged Hogan to veto the oyster management bill for that reason alone.
The DNR is already in the process of revising the state’s oyster management plan, publishing a draft in April just after the legislative session ended. That plan could be adopted by the end of the year, before the Assembly meets again.
The Bay Foundation’s Prost said the group supported the oyster management bill because it believed it offered the best chance to craft a management plan that could balance the diverse interests of environmentalists, watermen, oyster farmers and seafood dealers.
“By vetoing this consensus-based fishery management bill, the state’s Department of Natural Resources will continue the same failed strategies that led to overfishing and perilously low population levels,” Prost said. “Restoring Maryland’s oysters is possible, but only through collaboration and following the science.”