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MD Lawmakers Approve Bill to Discourage Offshore Drilling

The Washington Post

At Midnight on Monday, the Maryland General Assembly’s annual session ended with applause and a traditional Latin phrase for adjournment.

“Sine die!” a state lawmaker called out, receiving loud and sustained applause in the senate chambers.

The most significant environmental bill to pass this year came in reaction to President Trump’s announcement in January that his administration would open up the East Coast to offshore drilling, including off Ocean City Maryland and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

State Delegate Kumar Barve, the Democratic chair of the House Environment and Transportation committee, co-sponsored a bill that will hold any drilling companies strictly liable for paying for the full cost of any damages and cleanups from oil spills.

The goal of the legislation, which passed both the state House and Senate by overwhelming margins, is to make Maryland’s coast less appetizing as a location for oil companies to do business, compared to other states that do not have strict liability laws, according to Kristin Harbeson, Political Director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

“We oppose offshore drilling in any form off the coast of Maryland,” Harbeson said.  “It would be incredibly dangerous.  We know what happens when there are accidents having to do with offshore oil drilling.”

Another form of offshore energy production – offshore wind farms -- received a boost from lawmakers. 

Eastern Shore Senator Stephen Hershey, a Republican, introduced a bill that would have required a wind farm proposed east of Ocean City to be built at least 26 miles out into the ocean.

That’s a distance – about nine miles farther out than currently proposed -- that would have made the wind turbines and their red blinking lights less visible from the condos in Ocean City. But the increased distance would have made the project so much more expensive that the developers threatened to pull out.

After hearings on the bill, lawmakers in the House Economic Matters Committee voted down the legislation to move the wind farm by a count of 14-5.

“There was an incredible outpouring of support for offshore wind in hearings in the House and Senate,” said Mike Tidwell, the founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “These folks were supportive of offshore wind and therefore opposed to this bill to basically kill offshore wind farms off of Ocean City.”

Also winning approval was legislation that directs local governments to start planning for sea level rise in building projects funded in part by the state. The bill requires new roads and bridges, for example, to be built at least two feet above sea level.

State Delegate Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat, is Vice Chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee and sponsor of the bill.

 “By midcentury, there will be two feet of sea level rise in Maryland, which is going to inundate almost five percent of the state’s landmass, with more to come as sea level rise goes even further, beyond two feet,” Stein said. “And so the thinking behind the bill is that state and localities need to get serious about planning for this inundation.”

Many other environmental bills did not pass this year, including legislation to ban the brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos.

Also falling short was legislation to require power companies to buy half their electricity from renewable sources, like solar and wind, and stop government subsidies for the burning of trash as a so-called “green” form of energy. 

But the sponsors of many of these failed bills promised to bring them back again next year, proving that optimism is a renewable resource in Maryland.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.