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Bill seeks to set goals for cutting climate emissions in Delaware

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Roman Battaglia
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Delaware Public Media

June is a busy month in Delaware’s General Assembly as lawmakers race to finish their business before the session ends June 30th.

This week saw marijuana legalization fail and some gun bills advance. But beyond those headlines, there is other significant legislation being considered, including a bill to address impact of climate change in the First State.

Contributor Jon Hurdle takes a closer look at the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Jon Hurdle discuss the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act.

Delaware’s plans to fight climate change by cutting carbon emissions will be given new legislative force if a bill is passed by the end of the legislature’s current session on June 30.

The Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act (SB 305) would set targets of reducing emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050. It would also require state authorities to monitor progress toward hitting the goals by updating the state’s Climate Action Plan every five years. And it would direct officials to assess current and future vulnerabilities to climate-change risks.

The bill, which passed the state Senate this week 13-6 with 1 absent and 1 not voting, builds on the goals of Delaware’s Climate Action Plan, published last November, by giving legal heft to that document.

By setting legally required standards for emissions reduction, the bill’s backers hope Delaware will play its part in fighting the climate crisis to which it is especially vulnerable, given the exposure of its flat, low-lying coast to sea-level rise.

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James Dawson
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Delaware Public Media
State Sen. Stephanie Hansen

The Climate Action Plan outlined the nature of climate change, described its effects on Delaware, and laid out possible responses, but didn’t give them statutory force, said Sen. Stephanie Hansen (D-Newark/Glasgow/Bear), prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and chair of that chamber’s environment committee.

“That was step one, and the legislation here is step two,” she said, in an interview. “This legislation … is the result of conversations that myself and others have had with the Governor’s office about the need to actually set statutory goals for the Climate Action Plan, and now we have them.“

Hansen said she could have introduced the bill earlier but that would have lacked input from the Governor’s office and state agencies that would be responsible for implementation. “You want to make sure that you have the agencies and the Governor’s office on board so that we’re all rowing in the same direction,” she said.

Hansen and other advocates said the bill originated in the Governor’s office and was drafted in consultation with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Gov. Carney said through a spokesperson that he initiated the bill because curbing climate emissions is a personal priority, and because the bill would advance the Climate Action Plan.

“SB 305 follows up on the commitments we set in the CAP to minimize greenhouse gases and updates Delaware goals to reflect our current commitments,” the spokeswoman said.

I don’t think it’s toothless. It’s necessary because it’s the map to get us where we need to go. But what it didn’t do was tell us how far we have to go, and how fast. These two things work together; you really can’t have one without the other.”
State Sen. Stephanie Hansen on why the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act is need with the Climate Action Plan

The Climate Action Plan described how to minimize carbon emissions while maximizing resilience to the effects of climate change like higher seas and bigger storms. It said that sea levels at the Delaware shore have already risen a foot from 1900 levels; are forecast to rise another 9 to 23 inches by mid-century, and by up to 5 feet more by 2100.

That would permanently flood large areas of low-lying land and make so-called sunny-day flooding – when ocean levels rise above high-tide lines without being driven by storms – more common. Flooding is expected to destroy coastal infrastructure such as roads, power plants and wastewater systems, and to increase the salt content of ground water that many people rely on for drinking.

The earlier document identified four areas where carbon cuts can be made: adopting more clean energy; stepping up energy-efficiency programs; cutting emissions from transportation and reducing emissions from commerce and industry.

Cutting emissions from sources like power plants and cars would help to reduce the global accumulation of greenhouse gases that are trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, climate scientists say. A reduction in emissions now is designed to shield humanity from the worst future effects of climate change such as melting polar ice caps and warming ocean water that are contributing to higher water levels at the Delaware shore.

With the legal mandate that Hansen and her supporters hope for in the current bill, Delaware will be in a stronger position to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects, she said.

She rejected a suggestion that the Climate Action Plan was ineffective. “I don’t think it’s toothless,” she said. “It’s necessary because it’s the map to get us where we need to go. But what it didn’t do was tell us how far we have to go, and how fast. These two things work together; you really can’t have one without the other.”

One way of hitting the lower emissions targets would be for Delaware to commit to buying power from the many offshore wind farms that are being planned along the Atlantic Coast. Although the bill calls for ensuring that the state is prepared to seize the “opportunity” of offshore wind, that doesn’t amount to a requirement that the state commits to buying offshore wind power, Hansen said.

Still, she said many lawmakers want DNREC to quickly conclude its current deliberations over whether to recommend that Delaware procures offshore wind power.

“There are a lot of us in the General Assembly that would hope that DNREC would make that decision as quickly as possible,” she said. “But there is a deliberative, thoughtful process that they are going through. It’s painstakingly slow, and I think it would not be appropriate for us to direct them to do something that they haven’t come to a full and reasoned decision to do.”

The agency is weighing whether to recommend procurement, following a University of Delaware report in April that showed Delaware utilities could now buy offshore wind power at about half the cost of fossil-fuel energy after environmental and health benefits are included, thanks to a sharp fall in offshore wind costs over the last five years.

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State of Delaware
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DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin

In May, DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin told Delaware Public Media the agency hadn’t made a decision but was getting “positive” information that an offshore wind project could be “viable” for Delaware.

Meanwhile, Hansen said she’s very confident that the bill will become law in the few weeks before the end of the session. After clearing the state Senate Thursday, it now heads to the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Brandywine Hundred), who is the prime sponsor in the House.

“This should not be a heavy lift,” Hansen said. “With the two chairs of the committees as prime sponsors, that’s a good sign that this will be successful.”

But the Caesar Rodney Institute, a conservative research group, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying it would give power to DNREC that should be in the hands of the Legislature.

And because the bill will add to the workload of DNREC and other agencies, it should be subject to a two-thirds majority requirement to pass, not the simple majority that it currently faces, the institute said.

It said the bill could have been introduced shortly after the Climate Action Plan was published, but its introduction on June 2 subjects it to unnecessarily quick consideration by the Legislature.

“Supporters claim the bill is urgent because climate change is a crisis, but can DNREC demonstrate any action that cannot be carried out if the bill was considered next year instead of being rushed this year?” it said in a statement.

DNREC’s Garvin rejected opponents’ claims that the bill would give more power to his agency and remove legislative oversight of climate policy.

“This doesn’t create new regulatory authority that we don’t already have,” Garvin told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which met Wednesday to consider the bill.

And State Sen. Hansen amended the bill before it passed the Senate to explicitly address the regulatory concerns. The amendment, stating that it “clarifies that the legislation does not authorize State agencies to promulgate regulations beyond their statutory authority,” passed without opposition.

The bill met strong opposition from State Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View), who said the carbon goals could not be achieved in the time stated, and from representatives of utilities, the petroleum industry, and from New Castle County.

Critics said during a public-comment session of the hearing that the bill had been rushed through and should be amended and reintroduced in the next legislative session starting in January. But supporters argued that Delaware already lags behind neighboring states in setting carbon goals and urged policymakers not to delay action any longer.

“Delaware is less competitive because we don’t have these policies. When you are talking about investments by private companies or the government into clean energy, energy-efficiency, resiliency, they’re going to look elsewhere because we are not playing the game.”
Dustyn Thompson, advocacy and outreach organizer for the Delaware Sierra Club,

“We believe climate change to be a defining moral and ethical issue of our time,” said Shweta Arya, executive director of Delaware Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based environmental nonprofit. “We believe we are in a climate emergency, and as responsible stewards, we advocate for policies that protect all of God’s creation.”

But Mike O’Halloran, representing the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, said the bill would have an “outsize impact” on small businesses, and should be opposed. He argued that the bill’s provisions lack legislative oversight and give DNREC more power to make regulations “whether it believes it is receiving more statutory authority or not.”

O’Halloran and Arya were among 28 speakers who each made one-minute statements for or against the bill during the committee hearing on Wednesday. The speakers were split about 50-50 on whether to support the bill.

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Amy Roe
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Delaware Sierra Club
Dustyn Thompson, Delaware Sierra Club Advocacy and Outreach Organizer

Dustyn Thompson, advocacy and outreach organizer for the Delaware Sierra Club, said earlier that it would have been better if the bill had been introduced earlier in the session but now that it has been, he’s “extraordinarily hopeful” that it will be passed by June 30.

Thompson, whose group organized a rally to support the bill outside the Legislature on Thursday, said the “entire environmental advocacy community” supports it, in part because it contains the nation’s second-strongest requirement for hitting “net-zero” emissions – when the amount of carbon emitted is no greater than what is removed.

Net-zero goals can be compromised by lax limits on the amount of carbon emitted, and that’s why the bill would commit Delaware to a 90 percent reduction in carbon by 2050. Only Washington State has a stronger emissions-reduction rule, Thompson said.

For the average consumer, a state commitment to deep and systematic carbon reductions will mean, among other things, cleaner air, and an economic boost that has come to other states with the adoption of clean-energy technology, Thompson said.

“Delaware is less competitive because we don’t have these policies,” he said. “When you are talking about investments by private companies or the government into clean energy, energy-efficiency, resiliency, they’re going to look elsewhere because we are not playing the game.”

For example, it’s harder to buy an electric vehicle in Delaware than in other states such as New Jersey and Maryland that have signed a multi-state memorandum of understanding to support the deployment of zero-emissions vehicles, he said.

Still, Delaware is preparing to sign the memorandum, and will do so when relevant regulations are updated, said Michael Globetti, a DNREC spokesman.

The state is due to receive $18 million in federal infrastructure dollars over the next five years to build up a network of electric vehicle charging stations in its “alternative fuel corridors” of Routes 1, 13, 113 and I-95, Globetti said.

If Delaware is to hit the bill’s emissions target for 2030, it needs to start work right away on implementation, and that’s why it’s important to pass the bill by the end of the current session, Thompson said.

“There’s a high degree of planning by agencies,” he said. “Realistically, that’s going to take a year or more. You really can’t wait another year because then your gradient becomes too high for the emissions reductions that we know we need.”

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Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.