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Lawmakers make another attempt at passing the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act

Delaware Legislative Hall
Delaware Public Media
Delaware Legislative Hall

Last year, state lawmakers appeared poised to create a stronger framework to guide Delaware’s efforts to curb climate change. But after passing the State Senate, things fell apart for the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act in the House.

This week, a new version was introduced and contributor Jon Hurdle delves into the updated bill and its chances of becoming law this time around.

Contributor Jon Hurdle reports on the updated Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act and its chances of becoming law

Delaware lawmakers are trying again to give legal weight to the state’s efforts to cut carbon emissions and curb climate change.

Three co-sponsors on Thursday were due to introduce this year’s version of a bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from a 2005 baseline by 2030, and – in a new provision -- require the state to curb emissions further and reach “net-zero” by 2050.

The new bill, the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act of 2023, also calls for an “all of government” approach to cutting emissions, rather than relying heavily on the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, as before. And it would require annual meetings where the agency would update the public on the state’s climate work.

It aims to attach legal requirements to the goals of the state’s Climate Action Plan, a blueprint for climate action that was issued by the Carney administration in November 2021.

Last year’s bill failed after meeting resistance from the business community, which complained it didn’t get enough time to read it; from the Carney Administration, which dropped its earlier support for the bill late in the legislative calendar, and from critics who argued that it gave too much power to DNREC, and not enough to the legislature.

State Reps. Debra Heffernan and Sophie Phlliips argue this version of the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act is not a watered down version of last year's bill

Now, the new bill’s sponsors say they spent months seeking, and obtaining, the buy-in of stakeholders including environmental advocates and business groups, and so have ironed out objections that were partly responsible for the failure of last year’s version.

That consultative process is a major difference between the first bill and its new version, said Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Brandywine Hundred) and Sophie Phillips (D-Bear), the bill’s prime sponsors in the House. In the Senate, the bill’s prime sponsor is Sen. Stephanie Hansen (D-Middletown), chair of the Environment and Energy Committee, who was the lead sponsor of last year’s bill.

Democratic State Rep. Sophie Phillips
Democratic State Rep. Sophie Phillips

“Sophie and I had a lot of meetings with many of the stakeholders so everyone felt a part of writing the bill, instead of it being dropped at the last minute,” Heffernan said during an exclusive interview with Delaware Public Media. “Because there was a lot of working together to make people feel comfortable and understand the bill, that’s the other big difference.”

The talks with stakeholders, especially the business community, helped them understand that the bill did not propose giving agencies statutory authority to implement climate targets – a concern that contributed to the demise of last year’s bill, Phillips said.

“That was a huge issue last year,” she said. “Especially the business community feels a lot better with this now that it’s explicitly there. With the stakeholders, we didn’t just talk to them once, it was over and over again, making sure that by the time we had that final draft, they were OK with it.”

State Rep. Debra Heffernan discusses efforts to engage stakeholders to garner support for the Delaware Climate Change Solutions Act

Despite claims of a harmonious process this time, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, which participated in discussions over the bill's content, said Friday it is still reviewing the document.

“The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce is reviewing the bill to ensure it provides certainty and predictability to the business community and all stakeholders and will share our feedback as we formulate a position. We acknowledge the intent of the legislation to create a framework for addressing climate change and hope to continue working with the sponsors to enact legislation that improves the environment while allowing Delaware’s economy to prosper for the benefit of all employers and their employees.”

Additionally the bill’s launch was delayed for a week by last-minute changes sought by the Carney administration.

Heffernan declined to say what changes the administration sought, or whether they were hard for the sponsors to agree to, but said Carney’s office is now on board with the new plan. The Governor is planning to attend a press conference to launch the bill on May 2, she said.

“There were a lot of drafts, and we just needed to discuss it with the office of the Governor, and get them comfortable with the way the bill is written,” Heffernan said. “There were some timelines in there that were perhaps very aggressive.”

On Thursday, Carney welcomed the bill.

“As the lowest-lying state in the nation, we’re seeing the effects of climate change and sea level rise on Delaware communities every day. That’s why we’re taking action to reduce greenhouse emissions,” he said in a statement. “The Climate Solutions Act sets clear emissions reductions targets for the state – and lays out a plan for how we meet those goals. This is a necessary step in Delaware’s Climate Action Plan. Thank you to Representative Heffernan, Senator Hansen, and Representative Phillips for introducing this important legislation.”

State Rep. Sophie Phlliips discusses how they worked to address concerns that stalled the bill last year

Dustyn Thompson, director of the Delaware Sierra Club, said he was concerned about the inclusion of emissions goals on a net rather than gross basis but ended up accepting that and some other compromises as the price of a bill that all stakeholders could agree should go before the legislature.

“Now we can say we can emit as long as we can find a way to offset it,” Thompson said in an interview. “But we understand that there is a lot of concern that we won’t be able to meet those gross-emission goals, so we were willing to accept that.”

Setting emissions goals on a gross rather than net basis would have resulted in deeper cuts in carbon emissions, although the size of those cuts would depend on the available offsets, he said.

Despite losing the argument on offsets, Thompson said the resulting targets for emissions cuts are among the most aggressive in the country.

He also praised the sponsors’ efforts to forge an agreement from all stakeholders on the final form of the bill.

“This bill has been workshopped more than any bill I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It would be somewhat hypocritical and disingenuous for anybody to claim at this point that they don’t see a part of what they wanted in this bill after the level of engagement that everybody has been involved on this.”

For her part, Phillips said the sponsors sought to ensure that regulators focused on the goals of the Climate Action Plan rather than its details – which she said would likely change in response to a requirement to review and possibly revise the text every five years.

The biggest difference in the bill’s substance is its use of “net-zero” as the target for Delaware’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, rather than the 90 percent cut by that time that was required by last year’s bill.

“Net-zero” means that greenhouse-gas emissions may be offset by measures involving land use, agriculture and forestry, or by carbon storage and sequestration. The measure was chosen because it is consistent with the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, and with other U.S. states that would find it easier to share their climate expertise with the common measure, Phillips said.

“Delaware is the lowest lying state. I have lived in Delaware for a long time, and roads that never flooded now flood every time it rains so we really need to make sure we take care of our state so it’s going to be there for future generations.”

Democratic State Rep. Debra Heffernan

“If something is working in another state, we can use that,” she said. “It’s a lot easier way to compare and work together.”

If last year’s bill had become law, the state “may have had some struggles” reaching the 2050 emissions goal, while this year’s switch to net-zero for that target is “way more realistic,” Phillips said. Both representatives denied that this year’s bill is in any way a watered-down version of the original.

The bill recognizes that man-made greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change; that climate change threatens the well-being of Delawareans through effects such as sea-level rise, higher temperatures and flooding; and that climate change threatens agriculture, water resources, built infrastructure, the natural environment, and public health.

It argues that continued quality of life in Delaware depends on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and doing more to improve resiliency to the effects of climate change.

“Actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency to climate change have co-benefits to economic development, job opportunities, public health and air and water quality,” the 11-page document said.

To implement the proposed climate measures, a package of about seven bills is expected to be introduced next week, Phillips said. The bills will include measures to promote solar power on large commercial buildings; reduce emissions from school buses and other state vehicles; ensure the state bidding process takes clean, sustainable methods into account, and promote the purchase of electric vehicles and charging equipment.

Democratic State Rep. Debra Heffernan
Democratic State Rep. Debra Heffernan

“All the bills complement each other, and they will help us reach those goals that the Climate Solutions Act puts forward,” Phillips said.

One example of the effects of climate change already is persistent flooding along the Route 9 corridor, which shows the importance of passing the new bill, the sponsors said.

“Delaware is the lowest lying state,” said Heffernan. “I have lived in Delaware for a long time, and roads that never flooded now flood every time it rains so we really need to make sure we take care of our state so it’s going to be there for future generations.”

With around two months remaining until the end of the legislative session, Heffernan said she’s confident the bill will pass the legislature this year. She said there is already a “lot” of support as a result of the earlier discussions.

The sponsors have learned from the mistakes of 2022, and now look forward to the bill becoming law, Phillips said.

“The biggest issue was that the conversations didn’t happen last year, so when the bill was finally introduced, a lot of people were surprised what was in there, and had a lot of comments but didn’t have the time to address any of those,” she said. “So by taking these several months before it was introduced to handle all those comments and come up with something that everyone was OK with, that’s what’s going to make this so much more successful.”

Updated: April 28, 2023 at 1:03 PM EDT
This story has been updated with reaction to the bill from the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.
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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.