Environmental shell games -- Gazette.Net

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Could someone please explain why Gov. Martin O’Malley is going to bat for one of Maryland’s worst polluters? Our governor touts himself as the green governor, cracking down on pollution and sprawl regardless of the economic consequences.

His septic tank ban, stormwater management standards and Plan Maryland restrictions on development outside public water and sewer districts is a gut shot to Maryland’s homebuilding industry.

His moratorium on natural gas mining (fracking) denies jobs, revenue and a much-needed economic boost to Western Maryland while fracking rejuvenates economies elsewhere without serious environmental damage.

And his harsh environmental regulations are costing hard-pressed farm families dearly while their land values drop under his development curbs.

Yet, according to a front page Baltimore Sun exposé, our windmills, rain-tax, no-growth governor is pressuring the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take it easy on Maryland’s cruise ship industry, a notorious air polluter.

Maryland spent $13 million building the South Locust Point Cruise Terminal and even dredged Baltimore’s harbor to accommodate the big liners. But cruise ships burn bunker oil, a cheap, dirty fuel with 1,800 times more sulphur than permitted in buses and trucks. A cruise ship at sea produces as much air pollution, daily, as 12,000 autos.

So the government is cracking down on cruise ships to save an estimated 5,500 to 14,000 premature deaths and $100 billion in health care costs by 2020. When sailing within so-called “emission control areas” (i.e., near land), cruise ships must burn cleaner, but more expensive, fuel. This means passengers will pay around $100 more for a $900 cruise out of Baltimore.

Carnival Cruise Lines, the industry’s largest, is asking the EPA for a temporary exemption and is considering relocating from Baltimore if unsuccessful. So O’Malley is lobbying EPA chief Bob Perciasepe on Carnival’s behalf.

According to the governor’s office (O’Malley is off on another overseas “trade mission”), “The governor is a strong advocate for the environment and protecting the Bay, but as we are in this economic recovery, we’re always fighting for jobs. So we have to strike that balance.”

This must come as news to Maryland’s homebuilders, farmers, gas and oil industry and rural residents who didn’t experience a similar “balance” when dealing with O’Malley.

Two other questions come to mind. First, how could the Maryland Port Authority build a $13 million cruise ship terminal without a binding, long-term commitment from the cruise ships to stick around? How can Carnival just walk away from the Baltimore harbor facility?

Second, while O’Malley is lobbying the EPA administrator to give Carnival a break, couldn’t he also lobby for a rain tax break from the EPA’s $14.8 billion stormwater remediation mandate? Why does adding $100 to a cruise passenger’s costs bother O’Malley more than adding $100, annually, to a Marylander’s property tax bill?

We got another dose of O’Malley’s environmental double talk last month when the state decided to relocate the Department of Housing and Community Development from Crownsville in Anne Arundel County to New Carrollton in P.G. County.

O’Malley tried to justify what is perhaps the state’s worst real estate deal, ever, as a “Smart Growth” measure. Here’s the deal: DCHD moves out of its state-owned, 155,900-square-foot facility in Crownsville, which the state built for $17 million 22 years ago and which costs $1.5 million a year to operate.

Instead DCHD will lease 113,090 square feet for $60 million over 15 years in a building, yet to be built, at the New Carrollton Metro Station. And, in addition to the $40-per-square-foot rent, comparable to Bethesda and downtown Washington, D.C., rates, DCHD will pay the developer $357,000 for parking.

Meanwhile, the O’Malley administration has no realistic plan for selling or leasing the abandoned Crownsville building. And why is the state switching from low-cost owner to high-cost tenant, something no private sector business would do? For the environment, says O’Malley.

Transit-oriented development around Metro stops is a Smart Growth strategy to help fight climate change. Smart Growth? The vast majority or DCHD’s 380 employees now face a much longer daily commute, clogging rush hours and adding to air pollution.

No, relocating DCHD isn’t about Smart Growth, it’s about crass politics. It’s about a Democratic governor looting a Republican county to benefit a Democratic county.

Anne Arundel has the state’s second largest number of GOP voters (125,306) who elect mostly Republicans. In 2010 O’Malley only won 43 percent of the vote there. P.G. has the state’s largest number of Democratic voters (454,268) who elect only Democrats. In 2010 O’Malley won 88 percent of the vote there, tops in the state.

You do the math. O’Malley did.

Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is blair@leedg.com.