Why Maryland Is Struggling to Meet Its Own Aggressive Climate Goals

Even as federal money pours in for emissions reductions programs, the state still supports contentious waste-to-energy trash incineration and has trouble promptly connecting wind and solar projects to the grid.

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As climate change brings record heat to U.S. cities and Baltimore residents try their best to stay cool, the state of Maryland works to meet its own ambitious emissions reduction goals to help counter the climate crisis. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.
As climate change brings record heat to U.S. cities and Baltimore residents try their best to stay cool, the state of Maryland works to meet its own ambitious emissions reduction goals to help counter the climate crisis. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.

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Climate and environmental activists are advocating an end to waste-to-energy trash incinerators and an accelerated transition to wind and solar energy as the Maryland Department of the Environment considers proposals for achieving the state’s ambitious climate targets ahead of next year’s legislative session.

Maryland has committed to a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031, relative to 2006 levels, and a net zero economy by 2045, under the Climate Solutions Now Act passed last year. 

Since taking office in January, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration has adopted a number of climate-forward policies, including the Advanced Clean Cars II rule already adopted in California, which will require all new passenger cars, trucks and SUVs sold in Maryland to have zero emissions by 2035. 

The latest push by activists comes as the MDE on Tuesday holds its final public hearing on its draft Maryland Climate Pathway Report released in June. The document estimated that current state and federal policies, if fully implemented, would achieve 51 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031, compared to the state’s target of 60 percent. The gap of 10.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent must be closed through additional policy measures and incentives to be included in the MDE’s final pathway report and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan, due in December. 


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“This report is a major step forward in addressing the historic challenges we face when it comes to our climate goals,” Moore said when the draft report was released in June. The report, he said, presented a range of options to help address climate change, promote equity and ensure that economic benefits reach all Marylanders for decades to come.

The report will establish sector-by-sector emissions reductions, including cutting an additional 3.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from transportation, 2.3 million metric tons from electricity generation and 1.6 million metric tons from buildings through 2031. “Additional policies from the agriculture, waste, and industrial sectors, including critical reductions in methane, are needed to achieve the 2031 target,” the draft report said. 

The analysis cautioned that sea level rise and weather extremes such as heat waves, heavy downpours and floods posed a significant challenge to Maryland’s people and ecosystems, “causing substantial property damage, disrupting transportation and utilities, and endangering public health.”

Kathleen Kennedy, the lead author from Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that the proposed policy actions in the draft pathway report “include 100 percent clean energy sources by 2035” and involve collaboration with neighboring states to ensure that any imported power is clean. 

Among its chief policy recommendations is a cap-and-invest program, which raises costs for polluters by requiring them to purchase tradable permits from the government to release greenhouse gases that are above a legally established limit. If implemented, the limit could potentially cut an additional 4.8 million metric tons statewide, in addition to funding future emissions reduction programs. 

The renewed emphasis on the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets coincided with a $4.5 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for a new composting facility in Baltimore City to improve recycling and divert organic waste away from incineration—a longstanding demand from the advocates and environmentalists. 

Adam Ortiz, the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said the composting grant was “critical to improving recycling efforts, preventing waste, and improving reuse capabilities that will address climate change, support local economies, and help build a cleaner Maryland,”

Unprecedented federal funding under the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to supercharge the clean energy transition and greenhouse gas reduction efforts at the state and local levels. As part of the IRA, the EPA has received $41.5 billion to support about two dozen new or existing programs, the biggest of which is a $27 billion greenhouse gas reduction fund, said EPA’s Alison Riley in a recent public consultation organized by the MDE. 

The money will go to green banks and community-based lenders that would finance greenhouse gas reduction projects, she said. The money would also go to fund a “solar-for-all program, which is launching with up to 60 grants for local governments and nonprofits to invest in solar projects,” she added.

The draft climate pathway report in Maryland estimated a further drop in the cost of renewables, aided by the federal tax credits, which would reduce market share for natural gas plants. Natural carbon sinks created through land use measures could also drive down emissions. Electrification of trucks and freight services could also help cut greenhouse gas emissions ahead of 2031 and 2045 climate targets, the report said.  

Del. Linda Foley, a Democrat from Montgomery County and member of the state House Environment and Transportation Committee, asked the MDE to make a greater effort to shutter the trash incinerators operating in Maryland, one of which is in her district in Dickerson. The issue of waste management and trash incineration is  particularly important for Baltimore, which is home to the other incinerator and is heavily invested in “waste-to-energy” incineration, a process in which trash is burned to produce steam for heating, she said. The Baltimore incinerator, owned by WIN Waste Innovations, is a major source of air pollution in the city. 

Foley, who was co-sponsor of an earlier, unsuccessful bill to remove trash incineration from the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), said that it was important not to incentivize harmful trash burning. 

In an emailed response, Jay Apperson, the MDE’s spokesperson, said: “The Maryland Department of the Environment is developing a comprehensive climate action plan to submit to the Maryland General Assembly at the end of this year. It would be premature to comment on any specific proposals at this time.” 

In 2011, Maryland’s then-governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, signed legislation making the electricity generated from burning trash a “tier one” renewable energy on a par with wind, solar and geothermal, even though such incinerators spew large quantities of lead, mercury and other harmful pollutants into the air. 

In 2020, 60 nonprofit organizations called on the then Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to consider ending the state incentives for trash incineration, urging the administration to support the development of alternatives such as composting. “Air pollutants from waste incinerators increase the risk of preterm births, cancers of the blood and lung, and emergency room visits,” the nonprofits said in the letter. 

Foley said that there was little place for harmful trash burning in Maryland’s ambitious climate pathway plan, especially when “the governor has announced he would like even more ambitious fossil fuel reductions than what we have already identified.”

In a written response, Mary Urban, a spokesperson for WIN Waste Innovations, said that sources like waste-to-energy provide stable, baseline energy, and are integral to filling the generation gaps left by intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. The Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, she said, “is not promoting waste-to-energy over or instead of wind or solar. It is a complementary source to ensure the state meets its renewable and reliability energy goals.”  

Separately, advocates in Baltimore City and across the state called on Moore and the MDE to revise the draft pathway plan to reflect the needs of frontline communities disproportionately burdened by trash incineration, biogas and biomass projects in Maryland. Biogas projects capture methane released from landfills and agricultural manure and sell it as natural gas, and biomass produces energy by burning wood and other materials from plants and animals. 

In a statement, the advocates said that the report had glossed over “significant opportunities to reduce emissions in the solid waste sector through zero waste policies such as ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost.’”     

Del. Lorig Charkoudian, another Democrat from Montgomery County, focused on another issue making it difficult to meet the state’s renewable energy goals—delays currently being experienced by PJM, the nation’s largest regional grid operator, in connecting wind and solar projects to the grid. 

“The interconnection queue of PJM is a huge barrier to states in meeting their clean energy goals,” she said.

She said archaic federal requirements for electricity generation and transmission regulated by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), limited transmission capacity and siting and permitting issues all impede the clean energy transition. 

“I’m confident that if FERC and PJM wanted to act, it still is possible for Maryland to rapidly increase our clean energy that’s coming online,” Charkoudian said, adding that state agencies, including the MDE, had yet to figure out how to make their federal counterparts get renewables to the grid in a more timely way.  

Jeffrey Shields, a spokesperson for PJM, said that whether Maryland meets its RPS targets will have less to do with PJM and more to do with the financial feasibility and other development challenges developers have to weigh in deciding to construct projects in Maryland. Hurdles to project development are more concerning at this point, Shields said. “Today there are about 43,000 MW of projects that have completed PJM’s study process and should be moving to construction,” he said, and identified issues related to local siting and supply chain backlogs for equipment as factors responsible for slowing things down. 

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Michael Powell, a member of the MDE’s Mitigation Working Group, said some of the more ambitious proposals in the climate pathway report, such as a new cap-and-trade tax on industrial emissions, would likely face push back from industry and its supporters in the legislature.

“We have a very progressive general assembly and the majority is inclined to adopt additional climate change statutes. But I don’t think there’s a recognition yet that the pathway report calls for significant new taxes and significant additional expenditures by the state,” Powell said. 

While some cushion will be provided by new  federal money under the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in 2021, Powell said that the General Assembly and the Moore administration will have to weigh what additional incentives can be extended to other sectors such as buildings and electric vehicle manufacturing to realize the deeper emissions cuts called for in the pathway report. 

“There is a considerable doubt whether the state can achieve its clean energy targets given the interconnection issues with PJM and slowness in processing permits for solar farms at the state level,” he said. 

PJM is implementing a new, reformed interconnection process that was overwhelmingly approved by stakeholders and approved by FERC, PJM’s Shields said. “The transition period alone will study more than 250,000 MW worth of generation projects for integration into the PJM grid over the next three years. More than 97 percent of these projects are solar, wind, storage, or hybrid solar-storage combinations,” he added. 

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