This dying forest near the Little Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is the result of sea level rise and saltwater intrusion. (Dave Harp)

An early climate leader, MD now at odds over how to address worsening threats

By: Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com(republished)

In the race to head off the worst impacts of climate change, Maryland has been a leader among states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed — and in the nation, for that matter.

But the Hogan administration and climate activists are now at odds over whether the state is doing enough, given the lack of federal action and increasing urgency with which scientists say bolder actions are needed to avoid dire consequences.

With at least 3,200 miles of Bay and Atlantic Ocean shoreline, Maryland is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise associated with climate change. High-tide flooding, even on sunny days, is occurring with increasing frequency. On low-lying areas of the Eastern Shore, salty water from the Bay is seeping inland below the ground and ruining farm fields. Near-shore woodlands are turning into ghost forests, as trees are poisoned by salty water soaking the ground around their roots.

The state has long recognized the climate threat. A decade ago, the General Assembly passed a law calling for the state to reduce its climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2006 levels by 2020. Officials say Maryland is on track to achieve that by the deadline next year, though some activists aren’t so sure.

Much of the progress to date has come from power plants and other industrial energy generators switching from coal to natural gas, which when burned releases about half as much climate-altering carbon dioxide.

But in 2016, with scientists warning that more action is needed, Maryland lawmakers upped the ante. They passed new legislation calling for a 40% greenhouse gas reduction from 2006 levels by 2030 — a goal exceeded at the time by only two other states, California and New York. And they urged starting to work toward an even more aggressive goal to reduce emissions 80–95% by 2050.

In a demonstration of bipartisanship not seen at the national level, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, signed the bill, which had been passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

But figuring out how to reach that 40% goal hasn’t gone smoothly. Lawmakers directed the Maryland Department of the Environment to draft a plan by the end of 2018 for reaching the target. The plan was to be finalized by the end of 2019 after legislators and the public had ample time to review and comment on it.

MDE missed the first deadline by more than nine months. It released a 244-page draft in mid-October, and there are no plans to finalize it until well into 2020.

“We are focused on getting the most aggressive and achievable plan possible, and it has taken some time. But it’s worth it,” said MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles.

The draft proposes to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 44% by 2030, surpassing the requirement in state law. It lists more than 100 measures to do that, including a push to get 100% of the state’s electricity from “clean and renewable” energy sources by 2040, which state officials say is one of the most ambitious goals in the nation.

But critics say the plan is not only late, but it also’s wildly optimistic on one hand, relying on questionable assumptions and unproven technologies, and insufficiently ambitious on the other. Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the plan’s tardiness and shortcomings “would seem to call into question the governor’s seriousness in truly tackling the climate crisis.”

The plan proposes a few new state regulatory actions, including restrictions on emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, the climate-warming compounds used in air conditioning and refrigeration. Many others are expansions or extensions of existing federal or state efforts or participation in multi-state initiatives.

One major new initiative is the Hogan administration’s proposal to accelerate the development of zero– and low-carbon sources of electricity while expanding the definition of what those are.

Hogan had vowed in May to develop a Clean and Renewable Energy Standard, that he said would go beyond the goal set by the Clean Energy Jobs Act just passed by the General Assembly. That law, which took effect without his signature, would require 50 percent of the electricity used in the state to come from renewable sources by 2030.

The new standard Hogan promised calls for getting 100 percent of the power used in Maryland from clean and renewable sources by 2040. How that would happen is only briefly outlined in the draft plan. Grumbles said it would be fleshed out in legislation to be introduced in early 2020.

In broad terms, though, the standard would seek to expand the share of energy supplied by solar projects beyond the 14.5% goal set in 2019 by the legislature. It would also provide credits or financial incentives to other energy sources not generally considered renewable or environmentally benign, including hydropower, nuclear power, and natural gas.

Environmentalists object to treating those as clean — particularly natural gas, in large part because the hydraulic fracturing used to extract most of the fuel has led to groundwater contamination, methane emissions, and other problems. Moved by those concerns, Maryland lawmakers voted in 2017 to ban “fracking,” as the technique is often called, and Hogan signed the ban into law.

Now, though, the plan calls for developing gas-fired cogeneration facilities, which capture the heat generated while producing electricity for use in warming homes and buildings.

Critics argue that promoting more gas use is the wrong approach, and they contend that the draft plan underplays the climate-warming effect of natural gas leaks from fracked wells, pipelines and other sources. Methane or natural gas is many times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, at least in the short term over the next couple decades, they point out.

Instead of planning for more gas use, said David Costello, a former MDE official under Hogan’s predecessor, “you really need to ramp up solar, wind and [energy] storage.”

The administration’s plan also doesn’t spell out when or how the state would eliminate the dirtiest of its power sources: its six remaining coal plants, complained David Smedick of the Sierra Club.

Grumbles said environmentalists need to be more realistic. “Some in the environmental community want existing nuclear or existing natural gas plants to be shut down, and that’s not on the table for us right now,” he said. Rather than regulate facilities out of existence, he said, “we are looking at the marketplace to continue the drive for cleaner energy.” In the meantime, he said, the state needs to continue relying on natural gas as a bridge fuel.

To offset the emissions from gas plants, the plan does propose the development of carbon capture and storage, in which carbon dioxide emissions would be collected and pumped deep underground. But critics scoff, pointing out that despite decades of study and pilot projects, that technology has yet to prove feasible.

Critics consider other planks in the plan similarly far-fetched, such as its reliance on a surge in electric vehicle sales to curb transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions. With the state offering tax breaks for electric vehicle purchases and installing more fast-charging stations, the plan projects that the number of these autos will soar from less than 20,000 on state roads in early 2019 to 600,000 by 2030.

“It’s not a shift that we dislike … but it’s just not well-supported,” said Scott Williamson, an analyst with the Center for Climate Strategies, which issued a scathing critique of Maryland’s draft plan in December. The center, a nonprofit think tank that helped Maryland with earlier climate planning efforts, concluded the latest draft was unlikely to achieve the greenhouse gas reductions called for by 2030 and didn’t put the state on a pathway to make the even deeper cuts needed in the future.

The center also noted that the Maryland plan counts on the Trump administration failing in its moves to weaken or eliminate more than a dozen climate-related regulations, including those on coal-fired power plants and vehicle fuel efficiency.

MDE’s Grumbles countered that the center’s analysis of Maryland’s plan includes “several errors and baseless assumptions … We know we have a very good chance at blocking key federal rollbacks in coordination with other states and ushering in technology game-changers on the clean and renewable energy front in the coming years.”

But Thomas D. Peterson, the center’s president, and CEO warned that Maryland will surrender its leadership role among states in addressing climate change unless its draft plan is revamped. Other states already have set more ambitious goals, he said and spelled out more far-reaching strategies for achieving them.

Maryland is in somewhat better shape than most states, Peterson said, in preparing to deal with the impacts of climate change that are already happening. The center helped prepare two reports, one in 2008 on how to reduce the state’s vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal storms, and the other in 2011 on other threats to agriculture, water supply, and even the Bay restoration effort.

The state has created a CoastSmart program to help coastal communities tackle storm surge, flooding, and sea-level rise hazards. It offers funding to local governments for planning and training. State agencies also have collaborated on efforts to safeguard buildings and infrastructure from flooding, storms and other climate change impacts. A plan ordered by the legislature for dealing with saltwater intrusion released in December called for more research and study, and in the meantime offer financial and technical help to farmers and other landowners likely to lose croplands and forests.

The state’s original climate adaptation plans were “very ambitious at the outset,” Peterson said, and they’ve guided the state’s efforts since. But more is known now, both about climate impacts and about what to do about them. It’s past time for the state to produce a new, comprehensive plan.

“It’s really time for them if I might say so, to get back in the saddle,” he said. “It’s not like nothing is going on, it’s just somebody needs to put it together.”


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