ANNAPOLIS – The Healthy Air Act breezed through the General Assembly Friday, leaving Governor Robert L. Ehrlich’s signature as the final step before the session’s major piece of environmental legislation is enacted into law.
Ehrlich’s spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver, said that the governor has not announced whether he will sign the bill, or veto it and stick with the series of rules he has already promulgated.
“Given the governor’s Clean Power Rule regulations, he doesn’t believe that any further legislation is necessary,” DeLeaver said.
The bill’s lead sponsor in the House, Delegate James W. Hubbard, D – Prince George’s, said he was pleased that the bill passed without significant dilution.
“I think it’s great – five years worth of work in relationship to air emissions reductions which will lead to better public health,” Hubbard said. “We got 90 percent of the package, and down here 90 percent of anything is pretty good.”
The legislation will place restrictions on four key pollutants emitted by power plants, including carbon. Ehrlich’s rules do not limit carbon, and the attempt to do so was the most controversial aspect of the bill as it moved through the Assembly.
The bill passed a House committee Monday and moved through the full House Friday afternoon with new amendments in place.
By five o’clock Friday, the Senate had approved the bill with the House’s amendments by a vote of 32-11, in time for the assembly’s self-imposed Friday deadline for passing major legislation.
The amended bill heading to Ehrlich’s desk will require that the state’s seven major coal-fired power plants collectively reduce their mercury emissions 80 percent, and that they make similarly high levels of reductions to sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen emissions.
The regulations will not apply to one of the top seven, Washington County’s R.P. Smith power plant, if it is deemed financially impractical for them to comply. If the R.P Smith power plant is exempted it will simply have to stick to a baseline level based on its average emissions between 2000 and 2004.
The Healthy Air Act will also require that the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a program which will require all of Maryland’s power plants with capacity equal to or greater than 25 megawatts and that burn more that 50 percent fossil fuels to lower carbon emissions 10 percent by 2019.
It will also set up a process to do a study of RGGI, and if the governor finds that the study’s conclusions are unsatisfactory, Maryland can withdraw from the program.
Opponents of the bill in the House, who were mainly Republicans, had several concerns about the impact it will have on ratepayers and utility companies, and they proposed a slew of amendments to help address their issues.
One of the largest concerns many opponents voiced was that the combination of applying the carbon emissions requirements to plants other than coal-power plants and the other bills involving utility companies this session would have serious repercussions.
“If we turn the lights out this summer, which we seem to be doing,” House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R – Calvert and St. Mary’s said, “We should at least have the gas utilities available to us.”
Other delegates brought up a number of individual facilities in their districts that they felt should have been exempted.
Del. Christopher B. Shank, R – Washington County, voiced widespread concerns that the state should do a comprehensive study of RGGI before joining it, not vice versa.
“What we’re about to do is like standing at the end of a diving board and jumping into the swimming pool without first checking if there’s any water,” Shank said.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D – Montgomery, cited global environmental concerns as justification for passing the Healthy Air Act. “There is a bigger issue at stake here,” he said. “If melting glaciers are a concern to you, this is a very cautious first step that we have to take.”