Ten candidates for governor laid out their plans to tackle climate change at a Tuesday night forum, a number of them supporting mass transit projects and protecting the Chesapeake Bay while dividing on what they consider to be clean energy, such as nuclear power.
Eight democratic gubernatorial candidates, — nonprofit executive Jon Baron, former Attorney General Doug Gansler, former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., former nonprofit CEO Wes Moore, former Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and retired college lecturer Jerome M. Segal — as well as Libertarian David Lashar and Republican Robin Ficker attended the forum hosted by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and Maryland Matters.
Republican candidates Dan Cox and Kelly Schulz declined invitations to attend, as did former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D). State Comptroller Peter Franchot will attend a second climate forum at Goucher College on Wednesday.
Maryland Matters founding editor Josh Kurtz, Tonya Harrison Edwards of the NAACP Prince George’s County and Rona Kobell of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative asked candidates a wide range of questions on how they would address the impending climate crisis.
Expanding public transit
When asked about highway expansion, King called widening the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, which is one of the top priorities for the current administration under Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a “mistake” that would create profit for toll lane operators.
Instead, King said he supports public transportation, including building the east-west Red Line light rail in Baltimore, which Hogan cancelled in 2015, and finishing the Purple Line light rail between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
Moore also said he would “100% absolutely yes” support the Red Line rail project, adding that he would prioritize mass public transit improvements, including investing in electric buses. Moore is running on a platform with a goal to get the state running on 100% clean energy by 2035 and producing net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
King is running on a more ambitious state emission reduction goal: net-zero gas emissions by 2035. He made some jabs at Moore’s call for net-zero emissions by 2045, saying it was “too little, too late.” King also targeted Perez, the former Democratic National Committee chair, for not taking the opportunity to include commitments to move away from fossil fuel when he was head of the national party.
“The reality is, this is a crisis, an emergency, that requires bold action,” King said. Although some may say his target is a long-shot, King said “well, my life is a long shot,” mentioning that both of his parents passed away when he was a child and crediting his achievements to his public school teachers.
Lashar, however, did not support the Red Line light rail in Baltimore and instead called the project “a waste of money.” Still, he said transit from East to West Baltimore was a priority, but advocated for bus and van fleets instead.
Neuman explained that she did not support widening the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 because only people who could afford to pay more could use the toll lanes to bypass slower traffic. “If we want to create equality and opportunity for everyone, let’s continue to invest in public transportation,” she said.
Baron called highway expansion a “quality of life issue,” as “no one likes to sit in traffic,” and supported a “partial expansion” of the Beltway and Interstate 270.
Jain was the only candidate who promised free public transit for all Marylanders.
Segal said one of the biggest problems the nation faces is a “time famine” and the state should think about how to reduce the cost of transportation and free up time “so that people at the bottom don’t have to work five days a week.”
What counts as clean energy
As the state looks to a carbon free emission future, there are debates on what clean energy sources should be considered beyond solar and wind, such as biogas from animal and food waste, nuclear power and hydrogen energy.
Gansler supported converting chicken waste into biogas, an alternative fuel source that has received pushback from environmental advocates who worry about the expansion of “factory farms.” He emphasized that the state could support agriculture and the environment in concert with each other.
Lashar said he is “concerned but not panicked” about the climate emergency and supported diversifying the state’s clean energy portfolio beyond wind and solar to include nuclear power. “For us to achieve net-zero goals with reliable power that is affordable to all Marylanders, we can’t not use nuclear,” he said.
Ficker called for doubling the energy production at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, which is the state’s only nuclear plant and accounted for 41% of the state’s total net generation in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Baron said he also supported using nuclear power as a part of the state’s clean energy goals and endorsed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a market-based effort among several states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector — as a good model to follow. Baron said he would be “technology neutral” and support letting the market decide whether the state uses solar, wind, nuclear or other sources of power as clean energy.
Jain said he is “not sure” if he would support nuclear power, as he has heard concerns from residents on how the state would safely store nuclear waste and prevent low-income neighborhoods from being adversely affected.
Who would serve on their climate teams
When candidates were asked how they would select leaders of environmental agencies and commissions responsible for protecting the environment, Perez encouraged voters to look at the staffs he has built in the past as a county councilmember, federal official and DNC chair. “We hired the best, the brightest and we reflected the diversity, broadly defined, of the community,” Perez said. He also said when he first became U.S. labor secretary, the agency ranked second-to-last within the federal government for worker satisfaction, but climbed during his tenure to the top-third.
Gansler said he would appoint someone “who lives, breathes and feels the environment” as a “climate czar” who would report directly to him as governor. He said that he was called the “environmental attorney general” among his colleagues and pointed to his past work such as securing a multi-billion dollar settlement with American Electric Power in 2013 to reduce air pollution emissions to downwind states from its coal power plants.
King stressed the importance of the future administration to rebuild the capacity of the Maryland Department of the Environment so that they can better enforce environmental regulations. King said he would have a climate coordinator, but emphasized that “climate action will be a responsibility for everyone” in his administration.
Moore said he believes that “the people who are closest to the challenge are the ones who are closest to the solutions.” He promised to hire a “chief of sustainability, mitigation and responsiveness” on his first day as governor, who would be responsible for coordinating across private sectors, nonprofit and community organizations.
He also added that his administration would fully fund the state’s environmental justice commission — which assess how current state laws address environmental inequities and help develop criteria to determine which communities may be disproportionately hit by environmental degradation.
The entire forum can be viewed on the League of Conservation Voters YouTube page here.
A second forum is planned for tonight from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Ungar Athenaeum at Goucher College. The panelists will be Staci Hartwell of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, Sheilah Kast, host of WYPR’s On The Record, Stella Krajick, a Goucher College student, and Josh Kurtz of Maryland Matters. Tickets to attend in person are sold out, click here for information to stream online.
By Elizabeth Shwe