Maryland And Virginia Lawmakers Shift On Environmental Policy (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Maryland And Virginia Lawmakers Shift On Environmental Policy

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." On today's Law and Order show we now move to the people in charge of making the laws in Annapolis and Richmond. The legislative sessions for Maryland and Virginia have come and gone. And lawmakers in both states made some significant changes when it comes to environmental policy. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson joins us now to sort it all out. Hi there, Jonathan.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:33
Hi, Rebecca.

SHEIR

00:00:34
All right. So where should we begin?

WILSON

00:00:36
Well, I thought we should go from north to south. Let's start with something in Maryland that made both the governor and environmental groups pretty happy. After three years of debate, the governor finally pushed an offshore wind bill through the legislature. This bill means that an extra $1.50 each month on residents' electric bills would subsidize a company investing in offshore wind. But I will say that it is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that still is getting the most attention in Maryland. And that debate is still ongoing.

SHEIR

00:01:07
And can you remind us again how fracking works?

WILSON

00:01:10
Fracking is the drilling technique of pumping chemicals and grit deep underground into shale rock to extract natural gas. Now, opponents say that this could end up polluting ground water with some of those dangerous chemicals or some of the natural gas itself. Now, Mike Tidwell, he's with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, or CCAN, he says a statutory ban in Maryland on fracking is the right move.

MR. MIKE TIDWELL

00:01:33
This is a chance with fracking. There's been no fracking in Maryland. This is a chance for us to get it right, perhaps to decide we don't want it ever at all, but to do our level best to make sure that we don't find ourselves, 5 or 10 years from now, cleaning up a mess that we could have prevented.

SHEIR

00:01:51
But from what I understand, Tidwell and others on his side of the argument, they didn't get what they wanted this year, did they?

WILSON

00:01:55
That's right. Their legislation died in Senate committee by a six to five vote. Now, some environmentalists claim that momentum is still on their side and next year they're determined to get this ban. I talked with Drew Cobbs. He's the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. He says the Governor's Commission on Marcellus Shale drilling is still doing its work and he thinks opponents will have to wait until the commission delivers its final report. That's not due until towards the end of next year. Here's what he had to say.

MR. DREW COBBS

00:02:23
I don't understand what they're scared of, you know, if they feel there is sufficient evidence and information on their side then present it to the Commission on that. So I think they're worried about the outcome, in the sense, because I don't know if the facts really support their arguments.

SHEIR

00:02:38
Okay. So let's move to Virginia now. What happened in Richmond, when it comes to environmental issues this year?

WILSON

00:02:43
Well, Virginia's a bit of a different story. Now, you could say that environmentalists were generally pleased with Maryland legislators this year, but Virginia legislators, not so much. One contentious issue is the incentive system set up to encourage utility companies to invest in renewable energy projects.

SHEIR

00:03:01
What happened there?

WILSON

00:03:02
Well, let's go back a little bit. In 2007 Virginia reregulated its energy utilities and created renewable energy standards. After five years there was this automatic reexamination of whether the standards and incentives were working. And the attorney general delivered a report in November of last year that basically said, no, these incentives were not working and they weren't making companies invest more in renewable energy. Here's Mike Tidwell, talking about what happened next.

TIDWELL

00:03:29
There was an effort by the environmental community to repair, to fix this loophole. And instead of fixing the loophole, so that the standard actually incentivized the original intent of wind and solar, the General Assembly just repealed it completely.

SHEIR

00:03:43
So is Virginia simply not interested in providing incentives for renewable energy or is there some other explanation?

WILSON

00:03:49
Well, as you might imagine, it's a little more complicated. If you talk with Dominion Power, they're the largest utility in Virginia, this change in policy is the right move. They say the reasons, again, are pretty complicated, but they say that before Dominion invests in new projects they have to go before something called the State Corporation Commission and prove that a new project is in the public interest. They argue that these incentives could end up stopping them from investing in a new renewable energy project because the incentives allow them to collect more money from rate payers.

WILSON

00:04:20
So, for instance, if they're proposing a new solar facility, they'd go before the State Corporation Commission and say, well, we've got to raise rates to pay for the solar facility. The State Corporation Commission will say, you know, that's not in the best interest of Virginians and that would actually kill the project. Dominion Public Policy Director Bill Murray also points out that the incentives are still in place for a few things. And most importantly, the most costly renewable energy projects, nuclear and offshore wins.

MR. BILL MURRAY

00:04:48
From our standpoint, the bill very much preserved our ability to invest in renewable projects in a way that makes sense for our customers and kept the incentive for the place where it is most needed, and that's for offshore wind.

SHEIR

00:05:00
All right. Looking ahead, then, what do you see, Jonathan, as being the points of contention heading into next year?

WILSON

00:05:05
Well, you certainly can't forget about that hybrid car tax that passed as part of the governor's giant transportation bill. Environmentalists were very angry about a $64 a year tax for owners of hybrid cars in order to help the state pay for road maintenance. That hybrid car tax, environmentalists say that's punitive against people who are trying to help the environment. So in Virginia, that could be the biggest environmental policy fight of next year.

SHEIR

00:05:32
And we will stay tuned to see how that all pans out. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jonathan.

WILSON

00:05:37
You're welcome.

SHEIR

00:05:38
Jonathan Wilson is WAMU's environment reporter. We'd like to know which environmental issues you see on the horizon. Send an email to metro@wamu.org or send us a tweet. Our handle is @wamumetro.
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