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House passes amended Climate Solutions Act

Katie Tabeling
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In the final days of the legislative session, the House of representatives has passed the framework for addressing climate change.| DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

DOVER — A key piece of legislation to target hitting net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the next two decades has passed the state House of Representatives, and now starts the process of working through the State Senate with less than eight legislative days to go.

House Bill 99, dubbed the Climate Solutions Act, spells out the specific benchmarks of reducing net emissions by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, using 2005 as a baseline. The year 2005 was the peak emissions year in the United States, when coal-fired plants generated half of the country’s electricity. Greenhouse gas emissions in the nation hit 7.26 million metric tons.

Delaware has reduced emissions 27% between 2005 and 2022, or by 6 million metric tons, per projections from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Under the goals outlined by HB 99, the First State would have to reduce emissions by 5 million metric tons in the next seven years – essentially doubling its initial pace.

But as Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Brandywine Hundred) noted, the bill does not lock the state into pursuing every strategy as it comes, but rather codifies a planning process on how to roll out selected strategies. Key Cabinet-level departments – such as Natural Resources, Transportation, Agriculture, Health and Social Services and others – would appoint climate officers to work with a chief climate officer to update and implement the plan.

“This is a consensus bill, where everyone has to accept provisions they may not have liked to make it stronger,” said Heffernan, who shepherded the bill’s efforts through the House. “It does not ban gas cars. It does not ban natural gas. In its simplest form, it sets reduction goals and creates a robust planning process to help our state meet those goals.”

The Climate Solutions Act passed 27-13 Wednesday afternoon, with Reps. Kevin Hensley (R-Odessa/Townsend) and Mike Smith (R-Pike Creek) crossing party lines to vote for it with Democrats. One representative was absent. 

The bill also requires the state to adopt a climate action plan that is updated every five years and creates a committee of technical climate advisors, which would issue scenarios on sea level rise, temperature and precipitation. 

Heffernan also amended the bill that extended DNREC’s notice period for regulations to 18 months and would also include carbon offsets — or projects and initiatives that compensates for emissions, like reforestation and revamped agricultural practices — as an alternative path. DNREC already has an offset program that includes wetlands mitigation, air permitting, and coastal zone conservation permits, which are already being factored in the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas.

The Climate Solutions Act was hotly contested by House Republicans, who worried that it would put much of the power with DNREC and not with the people. Last year, Gov. John Carney announced Delaware would join 16 states in adopting the California Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulations, which sparked a year of debates. Rep. Rich Collins (R-Millsboro) proposed an amendment that would outright limit state agencies’ abilities to impose or amend regulations, pointing to the government “ignoring the voice of the people” on the vehicle regulations in the first place.

“I’m simply suggesting that we go back to what the bill infers: that this is not something to force regulation down our throats, but simply something that allows DNREC to set goals and plans that will hopefully come to [the General Assembly] when they have something worth doing,” Collins said. “They can have the plans, we just don’t have to give them explicit authority.”

Collins’ amendment failed along party lines. Even under HB 99, DNREC would still have to go through a public comment process to establish new rules.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown) questioned how strategies will be measured for equity of all Delaware residents, as initiatives that can easily work in Wilmington may not work best in rural Sussex County, like public transportation networks. The 2022 projections for Delaware greenhouse gasses have transportation as the highest contributor at an estimated 5.24 million metric tons.

“Public transportation is a challenge,” DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said. “We have some of the benefits of a small state and not being overpopulated, but it does have an impact on mass transit options. But when we talk about a number of communities that do rely on it, we’re also looking at upgrading vehicles like DART buses that use hydrogen or electricity and have that be the focus on overburdened and underserved communities… when you look at equality issues, you really have to look at the mitigation side which is critical to these communities.”

HB 99 is one of several bills included in a legislative package backed by Carney and Democratic legislators. Those bills include:

  • House Bill 8 would direct state agencies to develop and implement “clean construction preferences” that would allow sustainability and carbon impact data to be incorporated and considered in awarding public works contracts. 
  • House Bill 9 would set a goal that all state-owned and operated passenger and light-duty vehicles will be zero-emission by 2040.
  • House Bill 10 would establish targets for the annual purchase of state-owned electric school buses through FY 2030, gradually increasing the percentage of electric busses. 
  • House Bill 11 would require new commercial buildings with a foundation footprint of 50,000 square feet or greater to meet standards ensuring that their roof is able to support solar infrastructure. 
  • House Bill 12 would codify an existing Clean Vehicle Rebate program offered by DNREC since 2014 to incentivize the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles. 
  • House Bill 13 would require DNREC and DelDOT to assess the availability of residential charging stations for electric vehicles and to develop strategies to deploy additional charging stations in high-need areas. 
  • Senate Bill 103 would require newly constructed single-family and multi-family residential dwellings to include certain electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

To date, HB 8 and HB 11 are ready for a floor vote, SB 103 has passed the Senate and is awaiting a committee in the House and five await hearings in committee.

At the End of Policy Conference held by the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Democratic Party leaders offered their support for HB 99. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf called it a start in the right direction.

“We are facing big issues in the future. I’m not talking next year or five years, I’m talking 20, 30, 50, 100 years. We need to be good stewards of the Earth while we’re here for our kids and grandkids,” Schwartzkopf said. “There’s nothing wrong with having goals, and nothing wrong with looking 100 years down the road to where we want to be. And that’s really what HB 99 does.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola also pointed to the tornado in early April that hit Georgetown as a sign of major weather effects from global warming. He also spoke highly of State Sen. Stephanie Hansen, who chairs the Senate Environment, Energy & Transportation Committee and her hand in getting stakeholders together on legislative matters in the chamber.

“She is a model of excellence for the process and tells the stakeholders that we want their input and no one has veto power,” Sokola said. “They come as close to a consensus as reasonably possible. I know many of you have been involved, and it does take a bit of time to get through that process. But it’s something I have confidence in.”

HB 99 will be heard in the Senate Environment, Energy & Transportation Committee as its next step.

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