Gov. Wes Moore was quick to declare victory on key legislation as the General Assembly adjourned its 2024 session this month amid a last-minute legislative frenzy.

But, for advocates and environmentalists, the session was at best mediocre for the state’s lofty climate aspirations. Some fear late backroom interventions and compromises could upend the state’s ability to meet its statutory emissions-reduction and clean-energy targets.

Advocates felt broadsided when, with just six days left in the session, a joint House-Senate conference committee tasked with finalizing the state budget approved a controversial amendment. It blocks the Maryland Department of the Environment from fulfilling a key provision of the state’s Building Energy Performance Standards designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in buildings of more than 35,000 square feet while helping ratepayers reduce utility bills.

The amendment, backed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, specifically restricts the MDE from spending funds to adopt or establish “site energy use intensity,” which refers to the amount of energy used per square foot annually.

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The landmark Climate Solutions Now Act requires the MDE to establish, adopt and enforce energy-use intensity targets, requiring large building owners to comply with energy-efficiency standards or pay a fee. Starting in 2025, building owners are also required to measure and report direct emissions data to the MDE annually.

The budgetary amendment requires the agency to carry out a number of technical reporting feasibility studies and other time-consuming bureaucratic chores before it can access the funds to undertake the benchmarking required to establish and adopt the energy-use intensity targets. The MDE has been working to establish those standards in consultation with a broad array of stakeholders for two years, which, the advocates say, would now go to waste.

“This was supposed to be the year Maryland took big steps to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Instead, we are watching our leaders in Annapolis weaken the landmark Climate Solutions Now Act,” said Jamie DeMarco, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund. He said the amendment effectively requires the MDE to undertake another two years of work.

“Our hope is that the attorney general will throw this out because the Climate Solutions Now Act is a statute and this budget amendment is essentially trying to repeal the statute,” he added.

“If you take a look at the language in the budget amendment, it has [building and construction] industry fingerprints all over it,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. “It’s a repeat problem of not having an open and direct conversation about what the strategy is. It’s very disrespectful to the advocates and stakeholders and other people who spent the last two years on this issue. And it’s just frustrating.”

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Carter Elliott IV, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Moore is “aware of this amendment, and our administration is actively working to ensure compliance with it while continuing our efforts to implement strong building energy performance standards.

“We are still trying to figure out the real effects of this budget amendment, but it may delay our rollout of those standards,” Elliott added. “However, the budget amendment does not change state law. Buildings must achieve net-zero direct emissions by 2040.”

He said climate issues continue to be an administration priority. “We partnered with legislators to make progress this session in protecting the Chesapeake Bay and our waterways, eliminating the manufacturing exemption, and passing the EmPOWER bill,” he wrote.

Other environmental leaders, including Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, called the move disappointing, saying it undermines trust in the legislative process, weakens existing laws and interferes in the workings of regulatory agencies such as the MDE.

The amendment will take effect when the state’s next fiscal year begins July 1.

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The General Assembly also passed the Critical Infrastructure Streamlining Act of 2024, with amendments suggested by advocacy groups that initially opposed the measure. The bill, which was backed by Moore and other environmental agencies, including the MDE and the Maryland Energy Administration, excludes data centers from preliminary environmental scrutiny by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Advocacy organizations said at the time that excluding data centers from environmental appraisal would compromise the state’s climate and environmental targets, weaken regulatory controls and further expose underserved communities to environmental harms because of the pollution from diesel-powered generators that data centers run for maintenance and in emergencies.

Coble said her group dropped its opposition after the Moore administration agreed to an amendment that would divert a percentage of corporate income tax that the data centers will pay each year to fund emissions-reduction initiatives. “That amendment resulted in us moving from opposing the bill to being neutral. We didn’t support it. But we didn’t fight it anymore with that amendment,” Coble said.

Another bill that witnessed haggling that stretched well into the final day of the session was SB1, which put in place regulatory requirements for the retail choice industry and attracted a huge lobbying effort and maneuvering behind closed doors.

The Senate and House locked horns on an amendment that the House Economic Matters Committee attached to the bill, which sought to prevent energy giant Constellation from hosting a data center on its property next to Calvert Cliffs, the nuclear power plant it owns in southern Maryland. The facility fulfills about 39% of Maryland’s electricity demand.

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“Many of us in the General Assembly were not aware of the fact that Constellation had been working with Amazon [on the data center] and had planned to announce this co-location behind the walls at Calvert Cliffs. And we were not aware of that until well into session,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Montgomery County Democrat, who backed the amendment.

She said, once the lawmakers became aware of the issue, there were significant concerns about the possibility of a data center coming in, taking generation off the grid and not paying for the transmission and distribution upgrades that would be necessary to respond to that loss of power. The ratepayers would be left to pay the tab for new generation and transmission capacity that would be needed in such a situation, Charkoudian said.

With only a few hours left in the final day of the session on Monday, the House agreed to drop the amendment and commission a study by the PSC to look at the liability issues and potential solutions, allowing the bill to move over the finish line.

“The bill would reform the competitive residential retail-energy market so that consumers can enjoy the benefits of retail energy and have more rate protections,” said Laurel Peltier, an energy justice advocate who worked to pass the legislation. This law gives the Maryland Public Service Commission and the Office of People’s Counsel, which looks after the ratepayers’ interest, more authority to regulate this market.

Tammy Bresnahan, senior director of advocacy at AARP Maryland, said that, in addition to granting more oversight to the PSC, the law eliminates what is known as purchase of receivables, which guaranteed that retailers would be paid by the utilities even when their customers defaulted, and gave energy retailers great incentive to charge higher rates.

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“There were some really unscrupulous practices going on, and we feel that this bill brings much-needed accountability and transparency to customers to make informed choices,” Bresnahan said, referring to bait-and-switch practices by retail suppliers who prey especially on low-income people. Unlicensed sales representatives often used a common practice called “slamming,” switching customers’ accounts without their consent.

Now marketing agents will have to get a license and will get proper training, Bresnahan said, which should put an end to deceitful marketing ploys. Just as important, third party retailers will have to explain to customers that they are selling real green energy through wind and solar if they want to charge more, she added, which brings more scrutiny to the competitive energy market.

An aerial view of the WIN Waste incinerator in Baltimore, previously known as Wheelabrator or BRESCO. (Courtesy photo/WIN Waste/tamas -

For the seventh consecutive year, the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act, which sought to remove trash incineration from the state’s renewable portfolio standard, failed to pass despite bipartisan support.

Trash incinerators, like the one in Baltimore off Interstate 95, emit some of the most toxic pollutants for which there is no safe level of exposure, such as lead, mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

Last year, a similar bill aimed at removing trash incineration, factory farm gas and woody biomass from the state’s RPS also failed to pass. Lawmakers and advocates supporting the bill had hoped that limiting the focus of the bill to trash incineration would ensure its passage.

“Moore was a big disappointment on this issue. The Moore administration included eliminating trash incineration from the RPS in its climate pollution-reduction plan that was announced in December. And yet it did not support or endorse the legislation,” said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland organizing director of Clean Water Action, an advocacy group.

She said it remains unclear why state Sen. Brian Feldman, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and Environment, did not put the bill to a vote after advocates answered every concern that lawmakers raised.

“Just as much as this is a failure on legislative leadership’s part, this is a failure on Moore’s part,” Kunze said. “He had the opportunity to pass a fiscally responsible piece of legislation fulfilling environmental justice communities’ demands, making tens of millions of dollars a year available to invest in renewable energy at no cost to the state budget. But instead he stayed silent on the bill and that’s just not acceptable.”

Another bill that died was the Transportation and Climate Alignment Act, which sought to require the Maryland Department of Transportation and other regional agencies to carry out a climate-pollution and Vehicle Miles Traveled assessment of highway expansion projects over $10 million at the design stage to include greenhouse gas mitigation measures such as public transit and bike infrastructure near adjacent communities. The bill got to a third reading in the House.

Advocates cheered the passage of the EmPOWER Maryland Reform Bill, which would align the state’s largest energy-efficiency program with Maryland’s emissions-reduction goals.

“Investing in energy efficiency is one of the smartest investments our state can make in our clean energy,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, a consumer advocacy group.

She said, in recent years, some utilities made excessive profits off the EmPOWER program, undermining the state’s energy-efficiency goals. “We applaud the General Assembly and Moore administration for standing up for ratepayers by rejecting attempts by some electric and gas utilities to lock in future profits,” she said.

State lawmakers also passed the WARMTH Act, which could transform how Maryland delivers climate-friendly heating and cooling to entire neighborhoods.

Sponsored by Charkoudian and state Sen. Katie Fry Hester, the measure would require utilities to initiate up to two networked geothermal pilot programs to explore how the state can transition communities off the gas system. Networked geothermal relies on underground water-filled pipes that homes and buildings can connect to through heat pumps. The approach can lower energy bills and provides a pathway that allows gas utility workers to use their skills in the clean energy industry.

One of the bigger worries that advocates expressed was that the legislative session did not field or support any of the bills that promised to bring new fiscally responsible cash injections to propel the state’s clean energy transition. This is despite the fact that the MDE’s Climate Pollution Reduction Plan, released in December, put the figure at $1 billion a year for the next 10 years for Maryland to achieve its ambitious climate and emissions-reduction targets.

Most of the bills that proposed to generate funding streams through legislative action failed, including the Responding to Emergency Needs from Extreme Weather Act, which sought to establish a $900 million Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Fund by making oil and gas companies pay for their pollution or a cap-and-invest program, which would have generated $300 million for climate initiatives.

“The governor did put $90 million as a one-time down payment on climate actions, and I’m grateful that he did. But the question about long-term sustained funding for climate remains,” LCV’s Coble said. “There were good steps, such as improving the EmPOWER program, and there were a number of smaller steps that add up to progress. But there are some significant steps backwards and was there a single bill that really advanced climate action? The answer is no.”

Charkoudian acknowledged some disappointments but pointed to “a couple of really key wins.”

She cited the offshore wind bill; the Brighter Tomorrow Act, which incentivizes rooftop and smaller-scale solar efforts; and the EmPOWER Reform Act.

But she added, “We have this robust climate action plan based on the Climate Solutions Now Act and we went through the session and still don’t have a really clear funding source for it. That is a big disappointment.”

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

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