Josh Kurtz: Low Energy, High Stakes

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As he prepared for this year’s General Assembly session, a lobbyist for a major energy company tried to find out what the session agenda was going to be for the Maryland Energy Administration. The answer surprised him: There was no MEA agenda. 

A hive of activism and policy innovations under former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who staked his national reputation in part on the state’s clean energy successes, the MEA under Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is now a shell of its former self – literally and figuratively.

The agency’s staff is barely half the size it was under O’Malley, with vacancies galore listed on its website. Its office has been moved from a strategic location on West Street in Annapolis to a corner of the Maryland Department of the Environment office in south Baltimore.

The MEA director under O’Malley, Abby Hopper, is now running offshore energy programs for the Obama administration; the current director, Leigh Williams, is a former corporate and land use lawyer who was recommended for the job by Annapolis lobbyist and Hogan cheerleader Bruce Bereano. Even with Bereano as her “rabbi” with the administration, Williams has become increasingly estranged from Hogan’s top advisers, according to several sources, adding to the uncertainty over the agency’s mission.

When it comes to energy policy, the Hogan administration appears to have one primary goal: Keep utility rates down – or at the very least, ensure that any rate hikes or surcharges linked to meeting environmental or clean energy standards can’t be traced, on consumers’ bills, back to the governor.

It’s hard to know exactly what Hogan has learned from his time working for O’Malley’s predecessor, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R). He’s contemptuous of the media, just the way Ehrlich was. He’s fighting with Democratic legislators and vice-versa. That’s probably unavoidable.

But one lesson Hogan clearly learned is this: Do not get hammered for skyrocketing utility bills, the way Ehrlich was by O’Malley during the 2006 election. Hogan has nominated a former top aide and energy policy veteran who ran MEA under Ehrlich, Mike Richard, to a term on the Public Service Commission – and he should be able to help Hogan achieve that goal.

The state Senate has thus far held up Richard’s appointment. But that’s more a partisan power play than the result of any policy dispute over energy.

And even if the Hogan administration isn’t leading on energy policy, that doesn’t mean energy isn’t a hot issue in the State House this session.

One of the bills that has gotten the most attention, HB 1106/SB 921, would revise the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard – which dictates how much renewable energy the state’s utilities are required to use – from its current level, 20 percent by 2022, to 25 percent by 2020. The bill as originally written by its sponsors, Sen. Catherine Pugh (D) and Del. Bill Frick (D), would have also increased funding for an MEA program with the goal of creating clean energy jobs throughout the state – though that provision has been struck in committee deliberations over the past several days. 

Like any big energy bill in Annapolis, the Renewable Portfolio Standard revision has become a veritable Lobby-Palooza, with every major energy interest and every high-priced hired gun weighing in. Notably, among the big lobbying firms, Alexander & Cleaver is representing an entity that opposes the measure – the American Forest and Paper Association – and clean energy companies that support it. 

Predictably, environmental groups support the legislation for its climate-enhancing provisions. Most utilities and fossil fuel interests oppose it, arguing that it would make it more expensive for them to do business, and warning that they would pass the higher costs along to consumers. An exception is the Choptank Electric Cooperative on the Eastern Shore, which argues that the measure would lead to more market certainty.

Also opposing the measure: the Hogan administration (though state Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles has indicated to lawmakers that he has no problem with the more aggressive RPS per se). 

The Department of Budget and Management opposes the legislation on purely fiscal grounds: Much of the money that the bill sponsors envisioned to enhance the clean energy jobs fund has been allocated elsewhere in the Hogan fiscal 2017 budget. 

And the Maryland Energy Administration is also opposed.  

“MEA is concerned about the increased cost of energy to the state’s ratepayers, its impact on businesses and the state’s economic development efforts,” the agency said in written testimony provided to the legislature.

With just two weeks left in the legislative session, the RPS bill is limping to the finish line, with one of its major provisions – the jobs program – cut out. Some lawmakers are hoping that measure can be attached to another legislative vehicle in the final days of the session.

Ironically, it was included in this year’s RPS legislation originally because advocates thought twinning environmental standards with job creation would make the bill palatable to a greater number of lawmakers. Now, its fate is in doubt. 

So the beat goes on. Lobbyists will get their payday. The environment may or may not get a little help. And Hogan and his team will continue to say very little about energy policy.  

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Dailyon Capitol Hill. He can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.