Proud of my friend and former EPA boss for his leadership on array of environmental issues, including climate change. While Grumbles has weathered some withering criticism by some within his own party for his outspoken position on climate change, for conservatives, the question at hand remains, What is the correct policy position? As I continue to believe, based on the enormous uncertainties, a flexible “no regrets” policy is the conservative position. And while the Trump Administration has hit the temporary pause button, it’s heartening to see states like Maryland continue to move forward under a no regrets trajectory.
GOP enviro stalwart takes charge of motley climate gang
Josh Kurtz, E&E News reporter
Published: Thursday, December 7, 2017
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
BALTIMORE — Ben Grumbles keeps his office lights off until it gets dark.
Looking down from his window in a gritty industrial neighborhood south of this city’s touristy Inner Harbor, he can, to his dismay, see coal trains rumbling by along some freight rail tracks. He peers at a sprawling warehouse next door and shakes his head because the landlord is missing an opportunity to install solar panels across 13 acres of rooftop. And Grumbles, an avid biker, keeps bicycle-chain art on his office door.
The Maryland secretary of the environment’s personal green credentials are impeccable. But so, too, are his consensus-building skills and ability to walk a fine line between his own environmentalist instincts and the diverse priorities of the mostly Republican bosses he’s had throughout his career — now working for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R); as U.S. EPA water chief during the George W. Bush administration; as Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director under then-Gov. Jan Brewer (R); and as a congressional committee staffer.
In the year ahead, Grumbles, 56, will be putting those abilities to good use as the new chairman of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the alliance of nine Northeastern states that works to target emissions from the power sector.
“He’s so skilled at bringing people together,” said Katie Dykes, a commissioner at the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and the outgoing leader of RGGI. “He’s a great listener. The secret sauce for RGGI’s success is relationships and mutual respect. Ben has all that.”
RGGI takes in every state on the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Maryland — with the exception of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The fragile alliance includes states with diverse energy portfolios and governors of every political persuasion: a bombastic Republican in the image of President Trump, Maine Gov. Paul LePage; a nationally ambitious liberal, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D); moderate Republicans like Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; and more. The RGGI states currently have a 5-4 GOP majority.
Beyond politics, RGGI demands compromise by its very nature. It comprises state utility regulators and environmental officials, who themselves represent a “balance of the energy sector and the political sector and the climate sector,” Grumbles said. A New York-based professional staff provides support.
“RGGI is a dynamic entity that has changing players and participants,” he said. “We’re going to continue to find the balance between the environment and the economy. The strength of RGGI is it has a proven record of success.”
As the Trump administration pulls away from international climate commitments, state and local efforts to fight carbon emissions become more important — and RGGI’s role is magnified. Grumbles said he attended the United Nations climate conference for the first time last month for “a convergence of reasons” — to reiterate RGGI’s commitment to international goals, to represent Maryland’s interests and steps the state is taking to lessen its carbon footprint, and to stand in solidarity with the 10 other states that sent representatives.
Whether RGGI would be able to up its game this year was not a foregone conclusion.
The initiative’s carbon cap had been scheduled to stop going down in 2020, and some RGGI states, especially Maine and New Hampshire, were hesitant to commit to stricter goals. But leaders hammered out a compromise this summer that would set a cap of 75 million tons in 2021, which would then decline by 3 percent annually through 2030 — a 30 percent reduction overall. It also would readjust the number of carbon reserve allowances and compliance allowances for power plant owners (Climatewire, Aug. 24).
Grumbles was an integral part of the negotiations, just as he will be a major player as RGGI works to achieve its next goals: integrating New Jersey back into the alliance — outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) pulled the state out in 2011 (Climatewire, May 27, 2011) — and negotiating the possible entry of Virginia. The commonwealth would be an especially significant new member, as a Southern state with a heavy coal portfolio.
Grumbles said the re-entry of New Jersey should be easy to achieve, because Gov.-elect Phil Murphy (D) has pledged to do so and the mechanism already exists for the state to be in the regional carbon program. In Virginia, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) plans to follow through on an executive order by departing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to explore the possibility of the state joining an existing cap-and-trade program.
Grumbles said he is anticipating “intense discussions with Virginia,” but that even if the commonwealth doesn’t formally enter RGGI, it is poised to commit to meeting RGGI’s climate goals. McAuliffe was one of the officials Grumbles crossed paths with at the climate confab in Bonn, Germany.
“Either way, the environment wins,” he said.
Grumbles is expected to be a major player in RGGI’s discussions with Virginia, because he already has experience working with the officials in the Old Dominion State on issues of mutual interest, like the Chesapeake Bay and regional transportation and development challenges.
“I think having these regional relationships is always very valuable to a productive dialogue,” Dykes said.
Grumbles said that, broadly, his goal for his year as RGGI chairman is to reaffirm the states’ commitment to fighting climate change and meeting agreed-upon emissions targets. More specific goals, he said, will be hammered out “through good, honest, bipartisan and nonpartisan discussion. The goal on RGGI is that we listen to our colleagues and find common ground, because we are a consensus-based organization.”
‘Skeptical of extreme positions’
Consensus has also been the hallmark of Grumbles’ tenure in Maryland.
He works in an old Montgomery Ward department store and distribution center that has been converted into an office building, complete with airy public spaces and a green roof. On the day last week when E&E News visited to discuss RGGI, the Maryland Department of the Environment was hosting a recycled-art competition for about 60 high school students from across the state. The artworks were made with milk jugs, soda cans, water bottles, garbage bags and more.
“I am all smiles,” Grumbles said as he and Maryland first lady Yumi Hogan checked out a wire fox sculpture adorned with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers. “This is a wonderful, wonderful event, one of the best days of the year for us. I look around the room, and I see artists and environmentalists converging.”
Yumi Hogan, a Korean-born artist and instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore who incorporates nature into most of her work, told the audience, “This event is important to me, because it ties into a big part of my husband’s administration — protecting the environment.”
It is nearly impossible to succeed at the highest levels of Maryland politics without constructing a strong record on the environment. Green groups had some trepidation about Larry Hogan when he won in an upset in 2014; environmental groups cast their lot with then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) over Hogan, a real estate developer who had grown up and worked around politics but had never held public office.
As soon as he was elected to succeed former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who had compiled a strong environmental record of his own and talked about making the nation carbon-free during his 2016 presidential campaign, Hogan, a major critic of O’Malley’s, declared that the state was “open for business.” Environmentalists fretted about what that meant.
Today, Grumbles acknowledges that the state is open for business — “the greener the better,” he says.
While they’ve had their occasional battles with Hogan — he vetoed legislation in 2016 to expand the state’s renewable fuel standard and provide extra incentives for clean energy jobs, which the Democratic-led General Assembly overrode this year — most environmentalists have been pleasantly surprised. And most give credit to Grumbles for serving as the de facto ambassador from the Hogan administration to green leaders.
“Ben Grumbles is a climate activist,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “He cares about the issue, and he convinced environmental leaders like me that he’s effective.”
Hogan has embraced emissions reduction goals — though not as aggressively as some greens would like — and has provided robust funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs. He stunned most environmental leaders — and angered fellow Republicans and some business groups — when he announced his support this year for a bill banning fracking in Maryland, which is now the law. Behind the scenes, Grumbles was a major proponent of the fracking ban.
Democratic leaders have hit Hogan for not speaking out forcefully about certain Trump administration policies, including on the environment. When Trump proposed cutting $68 million from the federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund, a Maryland Democratic Party spokesman said, “One thing is clear — by refusing to stand up to Trump, Hogan is putting partisan support for Republicans in Washington ahead of his own campaign promises.”
That was a fairly typical partisan jab in Maryland, and as the 2018 election approaches, Democrats seeking to oust Hogan have made it clear that they will try to tie him to Trump whenever they can. While Hogan is personally popular, Trump’s favorable rating in Maryland was just 24 percent in the most recent public poll, released earlier this week, and he could imperil Hogan’s bid for a second term.
State Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), a hero to Maryland environmentalists who has an uneasy relationship with the governor, has been among the most aggressive attorneys general in the country when it comes to going to court to attempt to block Trump initiatives. Grumbles acknowledges the politics but tries to ignore them.
“In terms of the environment, it can get political, in the context of the General Assembly,” he said. “For me personally, I thrive on collaboration and listening to different views and think of ways of trying to accelerate environmental progress. There are going to be disagreements about tactics.”
Grumbles, who is always mild-mannered in public, became most animated when he was talking about the crumbling Conowingo Dam along the Susquehanna River in Maryland, which is allowing sediment and nutrients to flow into the Chesapeake Bay. If the hydroelectric power dam fails, an environmental catastrophe could follow.
Grumbles said the troubles at the dam were “a blind spot” to federal and state officials when they were crafting a long-term pollution diet for the bay. But in typical fashion, he said he was working with federal officials and policymakers from Maryland and upriver in New York and Pennsylvania to find a solution.
Asked whether he is confident that the Trump administration and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will protect the air, land and water, Grumbles was circumspect, though he was quick to say that he knows and respects several career officials at the agency, as well as Cosmo Servidio, the new EPA administrator for Region 3 who is the former director of environmental affairs for the suburban Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority in Pennsylvania.
“I have faith in the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the federal laws and state laws that are on the books,” he said, adding that the Trump agenda “underscores our view that now more than ever, the states really need to show leadership.”
Grumbles said he is “inclined to be skeptical of extreme positions” and feels policymakers should “work to find the middle temperament to achieve lasting results.”