What Climate Emergency?

By Adam Pagnucco.

On December 9, 2017, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.” The resolution stated, “Climate change will cause an increase in water and food shortages, civil unrest, state failure, civil war and terrorism throughout the world, with no region or nation being immune to these effects, including Montgomery County.” It went on to state, “We must together implement a massive emergency global mobilization effort to successfully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Each of us has the moral duty to safeguard the planet for future generations.”

A climate emergency. Merriam-Webster defines an emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action” or “an urgent need for assistance or relief.” Consider the following three matters and then decide if the county is acting like there is a climate “emergency.”

Closing the Dickerson Incinerator

In December 2016, the county’s incinerator in Dickerson was the site of an enormous, 85-foot tall trash fire that required hundreds of fire fighters to put out. It later emerged that the plant had 105 days of unscheduled outages between March and October of 2016, forcing the county to divert tens of thousands of tons of trash. Council Member Marc Elrich, one of the lead sponsors of the council’s climate emergency resolution, promised to close the incinerator when he was running for county executive. In January 2018, he tweeted, “And I’m preparing legislation to create a plan to transition us away from the incinerator so we can close it when our contract expires in 2022.”

But there were two problems. First, outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett extended the incinerator contract with its private sector operator right before leaving office. However, the contract allows the county to buy its way out. The second and bigger problem was that neither Elrich nor the county had any alternative plan for what to do with the waste if the incinerator was closed. Elrich told Bethesda Beat four months after taking office: “I’m gonna phase it out when I can phase it out. But people have to remember that I didn’t say I was gonna shut it down until we had a plan for dealing with the waste… So I’m not shutting it down until we figure out how we’re gonna figure out how we’re gonna increase the amount of recycling.” Elrich later told the Washington Post, “If I can’t do it by 2022, then 2026 gives me four more years… I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22. I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it. As long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

All of this happened almost two years ago. The incinerator still operates today. As for the promised legislation in 2018 to transition away from the incinerator, it was never introduced.

Climate Planning

In response to the council’s climate emergency resolution, a workgroup of county government, Park and Planning and MCPS collaborated on a 55-page report in 2018 containing more than 100 policy options for a “decarbonized future.” That was just the beginning.

Next, Elrich convened a 222-member transition team to prepare a comprehensive report to guide his new administration. The environmental team was comprised of one captain, two facilitators, three recorders and 25 members. They analyzed greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and code enforcement and issued 16 specific recommendations. (One of them was to “eliminate incineration.”)

The transition team’s report did not lead to a flood of legislation but rather to five climate workgroups with 150 people. The county hired a consultant to assist them and budgeted $400,000 in both FY20 and FY21 to pay for “climate change planning.” The workgroups issued 850 recommendations in a 96-page report. (Once again, one of the recommendations was to “eliminate incineration.”)

This was followed by a 235-page climate action plan released in December. One of Elrich’s staffers told Maryland Matters, “It is the shared responsibility of the county council and the county executive to take the next steps and come up with legislative packages based on the recommended climate actions.”

As of this writing, no legislation has been introduced to advance the recommendations of the climate action plan since its publication. Compare this record to that of former Council Member Roger Berliner, who back in 2014 introduced 11 bills and 2 zoning text amendments on the environment ON THE SAME DAY. (All but two bills passed.) But the county did rename its Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee as the Climate, Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee, so there is that.

Solar Energy in the Agricultural Reserve

Solar energy is a frequent topic of the county’s environmental planning. The executive’s transition team recommended, “Electrify everything and exclusively use solar and wind energy.” The climate workgroups recommended, “Evaluate environmental and ecological impact of using land in the agricultural reserve for solar” and “Establish demonstration projects to co-locate PV solar with agricultural production (such as grazing) and pollinator meadows.” The climate action plan mentions the word “solar” 184 times although it takes no position as to whether it should be installed in the agricultural reserve. The report does call for a transition to 100% renewable production of electricity by 2030, of which solar is one component. Presumably, enough space must be designated for solar use to achieve the scale sufficient to meet that goal.

In January 2020, Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker introduced Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, which allowed solar panels on a maximum of 1,800 acres in the 101,500-acre agricultural reserve. This set off a firestorm, resulting in four committee sessions, two full council sessions, three different news releases concerning “additional stakeholder engagement,” a town hall event, a poll showing 69% support for the legislation among MoCo voters and countless blast emails from feuding environmental groups on opposite sides of the issue. All of this took a year before the council’s votes to add amendments on soil restrictions and review requirements prompted one solar generator to terminate its projects in the county and caused the solar industry to push for the legislation’s defeat. In the end, if the zoning text amendment passes in its current form, it seems likely that no solar panels will be installed in the reserve unless the council members go up there with tool boxes and do it themselves.

There is an upside. The county won’t be getting the 300 megawatts of solar power allowed by the original version of the above zoning text amendment but it will be installing 6 megawatts of solar power at a Gaithersburg landfill.

Climate emergency? What climate emergency?