Last week, Maryland passed the Healthy Air Act, thereby joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — the eighth Northeast state to do so. (The Baltimore Sun has more coverage.) It was the rare victory for environmentalists.

I got in touch with state senator Paul Pinsky (D), one of the bill’s sponsors, to get the backstory. Our exchange is below the fold.

Sen. Paul Pinsky (D)David Roberts: Briefly describe the Maryland Healthy Air Act. What are the benefits for residents of Maryland?

Senator Paul Pinsky: The bill restricts emissions from coal-fired power plants — specifically, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and mercury — as well as requiring Maryland to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), whose goal is a 10% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2018. The bill places actual emissions-reduction numbers in code for the first three, including an 80% reduction for mercury.

DR: Who supported the bill and who opposed it? How did it overcome opposition?

SPP: The environmental community placed the legislation as their top priority. The power-plant companies lobbied hard, plowing lots of money into their campaign to defeat it. The governor spent two years trying to defeat the legislation, or at least weaken it. He opposed the membership in RGGI and the carbon dioxide reduction.

DR: Was the coalition of Democrats and environmentalists enough, or were there "strange bedfellow"-type alliances with traditionally conservative groups?

SPP: No. In fact some moderate Democrats jumped ship, and in a few cases protected the industry. So we had to fight Republicans and some moderate Dems. At the end, when it was clear the bill would pass, we won over a few Republicans and and won back the moderates. We did lose some amendments that weakened the bill because of those forces, however.

DR: Governor Robert Ehrlich (R), who initially opposed and threatened to veto the bill, signed it hurriedly at a ceremony last week — and didn’t invite you, the sponsor. Why do you think he did so?

SPP: The governor’s office created obstacles beyond the signing. Since we are in the last year of a term, there is no opportunity to override a veto after session. The constitution allows that if a bill is passed and sent to the governor at least six days before adjournment, he must take action and send it back to the legislature for a possible override. On the day of passage, the Healthy Air Act, along with other bills, was taken up to the executive offices. [The governor’s] staff would not open the door to accept the bills. Their hope was to push back the time of receipt to forestall an override. (They got hammered in the Baltimore Sun for their action, however).

With no notice, early in the morning this past week, while signing another bill (following a press advisory and an invitation to the advocates and bill sponsor of the other bill), the governor pulled out the Healthy Air Act and signed it. He ignored common protocol and offended not only myself, but other members of the senate as well.

In my view, he didn’t want advocates present so he could spin it as his initiative, rather than his responding to environmental — and Democratic — pressure.

DR: Opponents of the bill said it could raise electrical rates. Do you think that fear is well-founded?

SPP: No, that was fear-mongering. It’s the market that sets the price [of electricity], not the cost of production. The rates are set on the PJM grid, usually by the costliest energy. By far, natural gas and oil are the price leaders, not coal-fired electricity.

These coal-fired plants are cash cows and the energy they produce is much, much cheaper [than other forms]. They have a major profit margin, and even with the reforms that will be needed (scrubbers), the cost [of production] will still be below [that of] other energies.

DR: There’s a loophole in the bill that says Maryland can pull out of the regional climate partnership in 2009 if costs prove too high. Are you worried that might happen?

SPP: I didn’t support the amendment, but I don’t think it does much harm. Even now, any state can leave with 30 days notice.

DR: Do you think we’re nearing a tipping point when coordinated state action is going to force the hand of the federal government on climate-change?

SPP: I hope so. That’s the thinking behind the RGGI effort: to force the feds to act. Now, they simply have their collective heads in the sand and don’t realize how bad global warming is.