Bill would require government agencies to consider climate and environmental justice in their decisions

Emissions were emitted from a tall chimney at the Brandon Shores coal-fired power station in 2018. The station and another, the nearby HA Wagner Power Station, were given permission to switch from burning coal to oil in coming years. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require government agencies to assess how their actions may negatively affect the climate or hinder environmental justice efforts.

“We work on many environmental issues based on decisions made decades ago, often considered to have no impact or not sufficiently assessed to consider other impacts,” such as highway air pollutants and inland flooding due to construction, Del. Regina Boyce (D-Baltimore City) told the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

The “Climate Equity Act,” sponsored by Boyce and Sen. Ron Watson (D-Prince George’s), would require government agencies to assess climate, environmental justice and labor impacts before approving permits or projects. All government actions must align with statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals under Boyce’s bill, which is expected to cost the state millions of dollars. dollars a year, depending on his tax bill.

If a government agency finds that an action will negatively impact the climate or an environmentally overburdened community, the bill would require officials to come up with a mitigation plan. Government agencies should also consider opportunities that could benefit an environmentally overstretched community.

Boyce’s bill defines an “overburdened community” as a low- or moderate-income community or community of color in which residents, currently or historically, have been disproportionately burdened by environmental impacts such as pollution, health and low economic success.

Other legislation being considered this year would leave the task of defining overburdened communities to the state Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

“We can no longer wait for the Maryland Department of the Environment or the [environmental justice commission] to figure it out,” Katlyn Schmitt, a political analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, said in an interview. “Our communities cannot wait another 20 years.

The Climate Equity Act builds on a measure passed last year, requiring Maryland’s Public Service Commission – which regulates the state’s gas, electric and water utilities – to consider of the effect of climate change when reviewing applications for new generation facilities, ensuring they meet statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Recently, the PSC gave approval to two power stations in Curtis Bay – the Brandon Shores and HA Wagner power stations – to switch from coal to oil, which “isn’t much better in terms of gas emissions at greenhouse effect or health impacts” and affects a community already disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens, said Victoria Venable, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The decision was made because the Maryland Department of Environment is not required to factor climate into its decisions, Venable said.

If this bill passes, all relevant government agencies would have been required to carefully study the impact of oilseed crops on an already overburdened community and provide government leaders with more comprehensive information about the proposed project, Venable continued.

The owners of the power plants had announced in 2020 that they would stop burning coal at the facilities by the end of 2025 and convert the plants to provide electricity with alternative fuel sources.

Opponents of Boyce’s bill said Wednesday it was too broad to realistically implement.

Champ McCulloch, president of Maryland Associated General Contractors, said the definition of a “government unit” and a government “action” was too broad. “What is a unit? This could be all levels of government down to the local level. Government action could include “everything from cutting a check to sending a letter,” he continued.

“It’s so comprehensive, so over the top and so intrusive…it will have a multi-million dollar impact on the cost to the government of doing its normal business,” McCulloch said.

The Climate Equity Act would require government agencies to “engage in meaningful communication with the public” when considering the negative climate impacts of their actions.

But Dominic Butchko of the Association of Counties of Maryland, who opposed the bill, said it would “slow progress on local governments by imposing unnecessary and resource-intensive administrative burdens.”

Boyce acknowledged that the bill as currently drafted is “quick time” and that there needs to be “clarifying the language and narrowing the scope” to eliminate the bill’s unintended consequences.

Ashley C. Reynolds