Even liberal Maryland comes up short on clean energy

Correction: Earlier versions of this column incorrectly said that a Washington Gas subsidiary opposed a Maryland bill to fund construction of offshore wind turbines. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, of which Washington Gas is a member, opposed the bill. Washington Gas and its subsidiaries did not take a position on the legislation. This version has been corrected.

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 16, 2011

Our country has been wringing its hands about using too much imported oil for nearly 40 years now. In the meantime, we’ve learned that burning oil and coal threatens the planet even more than we thought because of global warming.

Yet even a state as liberal and environmentally conscious as Maryland is unwilling to add $2 a month to the family electric bill to pay for offshore windmills to create a new, permanent source of clean energy.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Such shortsightedness makes me despair that the country will never overcome the follies of its energy and environmental practices. A household could offset the extra cost just by replacing a few light bulbs with more energy-efficient models, according to state Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery).

I don’t expect a more conservative state — like Virginia — to show the vision and courage necessary to address our addiction to fossil fuels. That state is mostly led by Republican politicians, whose party overall isn’t even sure it believes the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming poses a serious threat to the planet.

Maryland should be different. Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly. Gov. Martin O’Malley, also a Democrat, is trying to make a national name for himself as an environmental champion.

But the Annapolis legislature just rejected O’Malley’s wind power plan, saying it needed further study. It gets worse: The General Assembly also refused to raise the gasoline tax, which would have discouraged oil consumption.

The proposed increase was 10 cents a gallon. That would have been painful, but only a fraction of how much the price has risen anyway in the past few months. And the tax money would not have gone to oil companies or foreign dictators, but to pay for road repair and new mass transit projects, including in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Finally, the legislature increased subsidies to incinerator companies that burn waste to produce energy. There are some valid arguments, even environmental ones, for generating power that way. Torching trash has the downside of creating greenhouse gases, but so do landfills.

Still, there’s no getting around the unhappy contrast that Maryland gave additional money to existing plants that produce dirty energy, while it refused to construct clean-power wind turbines off Ocean City.

To some extent, this disappointing record reflects the influence of businesses, especially utilities, in the legislature. The wind power bill was strongly opposed by Baltimore Gas & Electric, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative and Maryland Chamber of Commerce, of which Washington Gas is a member. (Pepco was officially neutral, possibly because it was busy fighting efforts to force it to provide reliable service.)

The waste incineration bill was promoted by companies that own such plants in Baltimore and Montgomery.

It would be wrong to put all the blame on special interests, however. The sad reality is that the biggest problem is the failure of politicians and voters alike to make grown-up decisions about how we get our energy.

Too few politicians are willing to lead on this. I applaud O’Malley for pushing wind power, but he has been timid about the need to increase the gasoline tax. That could change soon, because the state is starved for transportation revenue. His leadership will be vital to finding it, either at a special legislative session in the fall or, at the latest, in the 2012 regular session.

We voters bear responsibility, too. We want lots of clean energy, but we want somebody else to pay for it – and we’ll punish politicians who tell us otherwise. That’s largely what stopped the wind power bill.

“The whole thing boiled down to cost, and there was almost no debate about does this make people healthier and help solve global warming,” said Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland.

Even legislators supportive of wind power, in theory, “don’t like getting yelled at,” Heavner said. “They’re afraid of going home and having constituents stand up at a meeting and complain, ‘You raised my electric bill.’ ”

O’Malley will try again next year. Wind power supporters think the legislature will come around, especially if the economy improves.

“When you look at history in Annapolis, it’s very rare that significant energy or environmental policy gets made in one session,” Matt Gallagher, the governor’s chief of staff, said.

Maryland should be a national leader on clean energy. Wind power is a good place to move ahead, and soon.

Speaking of Pepco

In a column on April 3, I warned that a proposed Maryland bill requiring Pepco and other utilities to meet reliability standards could end up toothless. The legislation that emerged was not quite as weak as I feared. It would take effect in 2012 rather than 2014, and potential fines were lifted to $25,000 per violation from $10,000 in an earlier version. Still, it all depends on how the regulators implement it.

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