Maryland’s legislative leaders delighted environmental advocates Thursday by vowing to strengthen the state’s forest conservation law, increase renewable energy and pass other green initiatives, while resisting environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration. It remains to be seen whether election-year politics will help those prospects.
The 23rd annual environmental legislative summit in Annapolis drew a standing room only crowd to hear pitches — and pledges of support — for green groups’ top priorities during the 90-day General Assembly session that began Jan. 10.
“We’re going to make us the most environmentally friendly state in America,” House Speaker Michael Busch declared, to enthusiastic applause. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller voiced similar sentiment, predicting that amid upcoming debates over taxes, spending and other tough issues, “the one thing we’re going to agree on is the environment.”
Environmental groups have coalesced around the following initiatives:
- Strengthening Maryland’s pioneering forest conservation law;
- Increasing solar, wind and other renewable energy generation in the state;
- Reforming the process by which the state Public Service Commission approves pipelines and other energy projects; and
- Adopting a statewide phaseout on the use of foam food containers and packaging.
Beyond those, other measures supported by some or even most environmental groups include bills to address air pollution from poultry houses, ensure funding for public transit and ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos.
Attorney General Brian Frosh told the crowd that with new powers granted him by the legislature, he has repeatedly sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the Trump administration’s moves to roll back regulations adopted under the Obama administration. And he vowed to resist a proposal by the Interior Department to open the Atlantic Ocean off Maryland to oil and gas drilling. Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House committee that handles environmental legislation, suggested state lawmakers would find an “outside the box” way to thwart the federal effort to allow offshore drilling.
Speaking on behalf of Gov. Larry Hogan, Ben Grumbles, the state’s secretary of the environment, drew applause for assuring advocates that the Republican administration would keep fighting the Trump administration’s moves to cut funding and regulatory protections affecting the Chesapeake Bay
Grumbles said Hogan aims to continue making Maryland a leader among states in addressing climate change, but he didn’t specifically endorse any of the environmental community’s legislative proposals. Instead, he stressed Hogan’s focus on dealing with nutrient and sediment pollution that’s either built up behind or passing through the Conowingo Dam into the Bay.
Hogan is seeking reelection this year, a Republican in a state where the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate voted solidly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But Hogan did not endorse Trump and has take care to distance himself from his party's nominal leader. Moreover, he's demonstrated a willingness to adopt greener stances than most other GOP politicians, most notably last year when he endorsed and signed legislation to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. He's also restored funding for protecting open space and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Activists hope he'll continue in that vein with the gubernatorial campaign looming, though the legislative session could test how far he'll go. One of his Democratic challengers from that party, Sen. Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County, is sponsoring the bill that would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to examine what to do about ammonia air emissions from poultry houses.
Bob Perciasepe, a former state environment secretary who also served as a senior EPA official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, called Maryland “a shining leader” for actions it has already taken to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy. Perciasepe, now president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said more action is needed to offset the impact of the Trump administration’s move to withdraw the United States from the 2015 international Paris climate accord.
“What you do is helping others do more, even at the national and global level,” he said.
A quartet of Baltimore high school students drew the most enthusiastic response of the summit, when they ended the session with their pitch for legislation to phase out the use of foam food containers and packaging, in large part because of the toxic contaminants they contain.
The students said their group, Baltimore Beyond Plastic, had succeeded recently in helping to persuade the city school board to order the replacement of foam food trays now used in school cafeterias with ones made of compostable paper. With foam already banned in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, they urged lawmakers to extend the phaseout statewide - something the legislature has been unwilling to do when confronted with similar legislation in prior years.
“As youth, we ask ourselves what Maryland’s 2018 legacy will be,” Mercedes Thompson said. Will the state continue to allow foam food packaging, she continued, or switch to alternatives that are more environmentally friendly. “This year,” she said, “we decide.”