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Maryland governor taps gas industry official to help regulate gas industry

Environmentalists say Wes Moore’s pick for the Public Service Commission goes against his climate pledges

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) arrives to give his first State of the State address at the Maryland State House on Feb. 1 in Annapolis, Md. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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In his inaugural address, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) pledged to speed the state’s shift away from fossil fuels and toward 100 percent clean energy by 2035.

“Clean energy will not just be a part of our economy,” Moore declared in January. “Clean energy will define our economy in Maryland.”

But roughly a month later, the Democrat is angering some of his environmental supporters by nominating a natural gas industry official to the state Public Service Commission, a five-member body that regulates utility companies and plays a pivotal role in the state’s efforts to combat climate change.

The nomination of Juan Alvarado, senior director of energy analysis at the American Gas Association, does not violate any conflict-of-interest laws in Maryland. But environmentalists worry that Alvarado will help slow or stop efforts to phase out natural gas statewide, given his past statements in support of the fossil fuel.

“Placing someone from the gas industry at this agency could jeopardize the governor’s promise to take on climate change,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “Mr. Alvarado is completely the wrong person for the job.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Alvarado declined to comment without permission from Moore’s office, and an American Gas Association spokesman also referred questions to the governor’s office. Moore spokeswoman Brittany Marshall declined to make Alvarado available for an interview but said in an email that he “brings decades of experience” to the role.

“Mr. Alvarado’s résumé speaks for itself and shows his commitment to addressing climate change,” Marshall said. “The administration is committed to fighting climate change while working to keep energy affordable for low-income Marylanders, and we are confident that Juan Alvarado will work tirelessly to ensure safe, reliable, and economic public utility to the citizens of Maryland.”

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In a YouTube video last year, Alvarado extolled the benefits of his industry’s fossil fuel.

“Natural gas has a very important role to play in the future of the energy economy,” he said in the video. “It’s a really good tool in cleaning the environment and making sure that emissions remain low.”

Such statements are at odds with Maryland’s ambitious climate law, which calls for cutting the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 60 percent below 2006 levels by 2031 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2045, said Tulkin. Meeting these goals will require a rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels, including gas, he said.

Tulkin said he was not aware of any recent precedent in Maryland for a fossil fuel industry representative serving on the commission. He and other environmental leaders in the state said they were not consulted about Alvarado’s nomination. It could not be learned who the governor’s office did consult.

Moore’s office did consider another candidate recommended by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Scott Hempling, an administrative law judge at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, was interviewed for the role but not selected, said Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

“We endorsed Wes Moore early, when he was in the primary,” Coble said. “We really liked — and continue to like — his commitment to clean energy and fighting climate change. But we don’t see Mr. Alvarado as the right appointment for this position.”

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Last month, Moore announced he was rescinding 48 appointments made by his predecessor, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), including two appointees to the Public Service Commission. In addition to Alvarado, Moore this month nominated Frederick Hoover, an attorney at the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, to chair the commission.

Hoover ran the Maryland Energy Administration, while Alvarado spent more than a dozen years as a staffer at the Public Service Commission, including as director of the telecommunications, gas and water division. Both picks now await confirmation by the state Senate.

Across the country, more than 90 counties and cities — including Maryland’s Montgomery County — have banned or discouraged gas use in new buildings to fight climate change. As the gas industry’s top lobbying arm, the American Gas Association has fought government efforts to electrify homes and businesses nationwide.

Alvarado has joined meetings of the AGA’s Sustainable Growth Committee, which has steered its efforts to block electrification, according to documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, a group that advocates for renewable energy. And at a conference for state utility commissioners last year, Alvarado stressed the importance of investing in gas infrastructure and building “public support” for gas, according to audio of the event obtained by the group and shared with The Washington Post.

“We need to educate everyone about the benefits of resiliency on the gas system,” Alvarado told attendees of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference. “We need to help them understand why that’s critical to their well-being. Once we’ve done that, we need to get the regulatory support.”

While it’s unclear how much influence Alvarado could wield as one of five commissioners, he could vote to approve billions of dollars of new gas infrastructure at a time when top scientists warn that the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels, said Matt Kasper, deputy director of the Energy and Policy Institute.

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Gas pipelines built today have “a 40-year life span,” Kasper said. “So if we’re talking about winding down fossil fuel use in our homes and businesses in the coming decades, those are going to be stranded assets.”

Concerns about new gas infrastructure are not only environmental, but also economic: Utilities often seek to recover the cost by increasing customers’ bills. Baltimore Gas and Electric’s recent proposal to greatly expand its gas infrastructure could increase customers’ winter heating bills in three years by nearly $80 per month, according to a preliminary analysis by the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, an independent state agency that advocates for residential utility consumers.

Maryland People’s Counsel David Lapp declined to comment on Alvarado’s appointment but said that in general, “the gas utilities in Maryland are continuing to invest heavily in gas infrastructure. So it’s critical that we have decision-makers at the Public Service Commission that can fairly and objectively evaluate those investments to determine whether they are best for customers, as well as best for furthering the state’s climate goals.”

Baltimore Gas and Electric has defended its proposal, saying in a news release that the infrastructure projects are “vital for the continued safe and reliable delivery of energy to customers across central Maryland.”

Maryland state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D) said he plans to place a hold on Alvarado’s nomination when it comes before the Executive Nominations Committee, citing concerns about his safety and environmental record.

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“We are moving toward electrification and we have some ambitious [climate] goals in Maryland, and he’s kind of steeped in gas,” Smith said. “So there are some potential conflicts that I just want to talk to him about.”

At the same time, Smith praised the new Moore administration for picking someone with “stellar credentials” and said “there’s no question that the matter will be resolved.”