ANNAPOLIS – After a contentious three hour debate that had lobbyists phoning legislators at their desks on the floor, the Maryland Senate on Thursday blocked efforts to weaken a major piece of environmental legislation aimed at cleaning up coal-fired power plants.
“It’s time to do something,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery. “We’re boiling ourselves to death.”
The action on the so-called Healthy Air Act came amid concerns that the costs of cleaner air may be passed on to the state’s consumers at a time when electricity rates are already scheduled to increase sharply this summer.
Opponents also expressed concerns that the bill’s requirement to reduce carbon monoxide could place an overly-restrictive financial burden on the state’s utilities, forcing them to shut down power plants, a scenario they say could lead to rolling blackouts.
“With everything we’re dealing with with power in this state,” Sen. David R. Brinkley, R – Carroll and Frederick, said, “it’s going to be fatal to the reliability and low cost of power.”
Both the bill and rules promulgated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich seek to reduce three major pollutants from coal-fired power plants: mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. But the bill would go further and impose restrictions on a fourth pollutant, carbon, and that was the subject of most of the debate Thursday.
In the end the bill remained relatively untouched and Senate leaders predicted it will be voted on as early as Friday.
Healthy Air Act supporters say that the carbon restriction is critically important because it is an important step towards stopping global warming.
“The first purpose is to protect the health of Marylanders. Two is to protect the environment of the state, and particularly the Bay,” the bill’s head sponsor Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D – Prince George’s said. “It’s a fundamental question: do we want to reduce carbon pollution in the state or not?”
He scoffed at the suggestion that the bill would lead to increase rates for consumers.
“The effect on the consumer is zero. Energy prices are set by market.” Pinsky said. “This doesn’t affect consumers. Does it affect company’s profits? Yes it does.”
Opponents of the bill were mainly supporters of the governor’s initiative. They said that limiting carbon output could lead to a variety of problems, such as power plant closings, increased utility rates and an unattractive energy market that would keep new utilities from locating in Maryland.
“The governor’s proposal deals with the other issues that we’re concerned about,” Brinkley said. “The difference is carbon and the unknowns that are associated with it.”
The “unknowns” are particularly scary, the bill’s opponents argue, in light of recent developments in the electricity industry.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers will be experiencing an average rate increase of 72 percent once rate caps expire in July.
An indication of the importance of the bill came when the Senate’s president and presiding officer, Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D – Prince George’s, halted proceedings to scold lobbyists on both sides for phoning senators at their desks on the floor during the debate – a highly unusual practice which clearly displeased Miller.
“It’s been reported to the chair that lobbyists are calling members of the Senate,” Miller said. “Phones are for staff people, the lobbyists on either side are not permitted to call.”
Despite concerns that the bill will add to the stresses cause by the BGE rate increases, Miller said he believes that if it passes in the Senate and, eventually, in the House, Ehrlich will not veto it. “He hasn’t mentioned one word of opposition to me or anyone on the committee on this bill,” Miller said. “He’s in campaign mode…and I’m certain he won’t veto it.”