ANNAPOLIS, Maryland—On a cloudy Thursday morning in March, state Sen. Paul Pinsky walked out of the Maryland State House for a new life on the cutting edge of climate policy he’s helped hone in the state.
Just moments earlier, Pinsky, 73, who spent 36 years representing Prince George’s County in the General Assembly, was presented with the First Citizen Award from Senate President Bill Ferguson in recognition of his long public service.
Impassioned speeches followed, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took to the floor one after another, calling him an idealist and a pragmatist who would strike a conciliatory chord without compromising his principles.
Pinsky, a progressive Democrat who last year sponsored what is now considered one of the nation’s most ambitious climate bills, sat with his legs and arms crossed and smiled from time to time as comments and accolades washed over him. And then it was over.
The Senate went back into session and Pinsky, out on the streets of Maryland’s colonial-era capital, was left pondering the next step in his career, as Gov. Wes Moore’s head of the Maryland Energy Administration, which Pinsky described as “moribund” under Moore’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Brian Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general from 2015 to 2023 who was elected with Pinsky to the Maryland state Senate in 1994, called Pinsky a “passionate” lawmaker dedicated for years to protecting the environment.
“Paul is one of those people who is dedicated to certain principles, captivated by ideals and works hard to achieve what he thinks are our important objectives, like protecting the environment,” he said. “And he was passionate about education, providing equal opportunities for kids regardless of where they live.”
The MEA, which advises the governor and the General Assembly on energy policy with focus on clean energy and energy efficiency, announced $9.25 million in grants for expanding natural gas infrastructure in the state—a day after Maryland elected Moore, its first Black governor and a strong renewable energy and climate advocate, in November.
The grants angered Pinsky and many environmentalists, who called the move an 11th hour handout to the fossil fuel industry at ratepayer’s expense designed to lock in natural gas infrastructure for years to come, despite the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions.
Pinsky said the Hogan administration hollowed out the MEA and the state’s other environmental regulatory agencies to such a degree that they failed to help circumvent the collapse of Baltimore’s two large wastewater treatment plants, which last year emitted large quantities of raw sewage into waterways that then polluted the Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s hard to take in,” Pinsky said of his changing worlds, walking briskly away from the State House. “I resolved in my mind that I was leaving the Senate and I did it with mixed emotions. It’s been a constant for 36 years of my life. I know a lot of people have come and gone through those doors.”
The governor is true to the commitment he made on the campaign trail about getting to 100 percent clean energy by 2035, Pinsky said. “That, coupled with the mandate in the Climate Solutions Now bill, which I was proud to sponsor, called for a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2031. So, I thought this position made more sense in terms of my goals, my experience and my age.”
Considered one of the most ambitious climate bills, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Climate Solutions Now Act in April last year. Passed last April, the bill requires a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2006 levels by 2031 and net-zero by 2045. It also establishes energy performance standards for buildings, increases the state’s energy efficiency goals and codifies a definition of environmental justice communities for Maryland state agencies. Those goals require directing at least 40 percent of certain federal environmental appropriations to underserved communities, as required under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative.
“Gov. Moore asked me if I’d like to lead the MEA. And knowing the agency to some degree, which was moribund under the previous Gov. Larry Hogan, I thought it might be a good place for me,” Pinsky said, as he sat behind a wooden desk in his new spacious office on the seventh floor of a sprawling government complex in Baltimore that hosts various state agencies.
Pinsky had been an outspoken critic of Hogan, who he said was responsible for deep personnel cuts at the Maryland Department of the Environment and for installing fossil fuel interests to oversee the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is meant to safeguard electric ratepayers’ interests.
“The Hogan administration put a freeze on permanent positions, and as a result, the state agencies were down to fewer staff. Everywhere you looked, it was a wild west, like do whatever you want to do,” Pinsky said. The agencies’ staff were told not to cooperate with the legislators, he added, making it difficult to write a good piece of legislation and perform meaningful oversight, based on agencies’ feedback.
He said that environmental enforcement was just not important in the last eight years, which had implications, such as crumbling infrastructure. “The two wastewater treatment plants in Baltimore were practically failing and no one spoke up,” Pinsky said. “Hopefully, that chapter is now over because the Baltimore situation is an embarrassment to the governor, even though he wasn’t in office when it happened. But he’s lived in Baltimore and he feels for it.”
Pinsky said that weeding out the culture of inaction left behind by the previous administration and replacing it with a team of action-oriented and forward-looking leaders would take time. “There was a certain culture here set up by the previous governor and the agency’s last director,” he said.
Like the grants it doled out to natural gas utilities the day after Moore’s election, the MEA’s website left little doubt where it stood on moving aggressively to renewable energy.
“The purpose of the Maryland Energy Infrastructure Program is to incentivize natural gas infrastructure, and promote natural gas infrastructure,” the MEA said on its website. “Natural gas is cleaner, safer, and easier to store than other fuels. Unlike electricity, natural gas is unlikely to be knocked out by a storm or rationed when demand is high.”
“We should be investing in clean energy. Not in a decrepit, early 20th infrastructure,” Pinsky said, likening the utility companies to an “800-pound gorilla” that was only accountable to shareholders.
“I would hope that the utility industry comes along and becomes an active ally to clean energy. But some of them still want to hold on to the fossil fuel side of business,” he said. He is not afraid of a battle, he said, but would rather have the utilities as allies.
“Gov. Moore has a clear vision. He wanted 100 percent clean energy by 2035. That will be a heavy lift. But I want to work like hell to transform our state by expanding solar, wind and geothermal,” he said. And he would like to do that through an environmental justice lens so that struggling households are not left behind. “That’s what I like to achieve,” he said.
Pinsky said he has already told the agency staff to get ready for taking bold steps in order to achieve the targets and, where necessary, agreeing to disagree with external partners such as the utilities or Maryland Public Service Commission, which, he said, “has been very friendly with the utilities.”
“I would like the agency to make bold advances in clean energy. I feel the urgency because of the climate change and the more we sit back more people will suffer, whether it’s severe storms or flooding or asthma because of the polluting industries,” he said. “So, I really want to shift as quickly as possible to clean energy and at the same time, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I would like Maryland to be a leader.”
Maryland’s ‘Go-To’ Lawmaker on the Environment
Hailing from New Jersey where he spent his early years, Pinsky grew up in New Jersey and moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended George Washington University. It was the 1970s and Pinsky said he was part of the political movement for civil rights and social justice. “I think I was arrested four times mostly for protesting peacefully against the Vietnam War and the apartheid in South Africa,” he said.
Millions of young people across the United States in the ‘70s were protesting the unpopular war, Pinsky said, where people were getting killed and coming home in body bags. “It was on the news every night. Nowadays, flooding and droughts are on the news but it’s not always connected to our inaction or delay in addressing climate change,” he said.
The last time he was arrested was in 2011, when state Sen. Pinsky was hauled away by the police from outside the White House along with over 100 activists for protesting against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In 2017, Pinsky joined environmental activists in front of the Maryland state house rallying in favor of the legislation calling for a ban on hydraulic fracking in the state.
He’s hung Nelson Mandela and Frederick Douglass posters on the walls of his new office. “I didn’t have any room for a lot of other things. But I got my energy posters here. I use these quotes in lots of speeches,” he said, pointing at Douglas’s famous quote: Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
After college, Pinsky taught history at a Prince George’s public high school. “I wanted to be in a working-class community. So, I thought Prince George’s County would be a good place to teach and eventually live. So, I started teaching in 1976 and then I bought my first house there in 1980.”
He then became involved with the teachers’ union and subsequently served as the president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, a labor union representing over 6,000 school employees. “My grassroots work was in Maryland and that led me to run for the state legislature in 1986,” he said.
“I was a major voice on education reform and one of the architects of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future law,” he said, referring to the bill which led to billions of dollars of investment in Maryland’s public schools. “So that’s close to my heart. Making a life change at any age was complicated for me. I was giving up some of the things that were important to me,” Pinsky said.
In 1994, Pinsky was elected to the Senate, where he would sponsor and get passed important environmental legislation on tree cover, energy efficiency and equity, and tighter regulatory and enforcement actions against polluters. He chaired various Senate committees including the influential Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which he oversaw until he resigned in early 2023.
Pinsky said he was particularly proud of helping pass the Healthy Air Act of 2007, bringing Maryland into compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone and fine particulate matter by 2010. He said he also sponsored that bill “that got Maryland to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It took a couple of years to pass but I dealt with it.”
Under RGGI’s “cap-and-invest” design, 11 Northeast states have agreed to establish caps on emissions from their utilities power that decline 3 percent a year. Those utilities buy “allowances” at periodic auctions for each ton of carbon they will emit over those capped limits, with proceeds going to the states to assist in their transition to clean energy.
He also sponsored the Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021, which established a statewide goal to plant and maintain 5 million native trees in Maryland by the end of 2031. “And then, the climate solutions bill, which was the cherry on top. So, I guess I was one of the go-to people on the environment. I feel pretty good about that,” he said.
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Frosh, the former delegate and attorney general, said Pinsky “was a bit disappointed that the climate solutions bill was watered down to a certain extent. But it also achieved significant gains. It was something that he was proud of, notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t get enacted in the same stronger form he had introduced it.”
Frosh said that Pinsky was one of those lawmakers that environmental organizations and activists knew they could count on, “not just for his vote but also for his leadership.” Among his achievements is how effectively he used his clout as chair of the committees he presided over to advance the environmental agenda, which Frosh said was really impressive.
“As a legislator, Paul was always guided by his principles and did the right thing whether it was politically convenient or not. And brought his intelligence and integrity to the job that he’s engaged in,” he said. “His new assignment is very important because it really has the potential to leverage environmental gains through dispensing grants, distributing federal [Inflation Reduction Act] money and other state funds available for projects that will help clean the air, clean up water, and protect the Chesapeake Bay.”
‘I Try To Fight the Good Fight’
Back at the MEA office, Pinsky and his team were already going over numbers and focusing on potential partnerships and projects that are aligned with the agency’s clean energy and efficiency goals.
The agency’s annual budget last year was about $64 million, he said, and more money is expected during the next fiscal year, especially with federal dollars pouring in under the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which passed in 2021 and earmarked historic investments in clean energy initiatives. “I think we are going to get more money from the IRA and we’re expecting $135 million over four years.”
MEA awards grants for various projects, including geothermal and solar, from the money it receives from the RGGI fund, which is contributed by utilities whenever they exceed their emissions caps. A significant amount of RGGI money also goes into energy assistance for low-income families.
“We are helping thousands of energy-burdened households lower their bills and also trying to make a bigger effort of bringing community solar to communities with low- and moderate-income families,” Pinsky said.
He said the agency is now looking to put together a package of investors and developers interested in installing community solar. “There are a number of nonprofits also beginning to enter that market,” he said.
The agency is also looking to convert open spaces such as parking lots, acres of mostly empty land at university campuses and state buildings, and landfills into solar canopies. “We are doing an inventory of the state buildings to look at possible locations for this proposal,” Pinsky said.
Shopping malls, schools and universities can lower their bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even sell excess energy if they participate. “I hope to work on changing the law to enable that,” Pinsky said, which would require going through the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Enabling schools to be carbon net neutral is one project which is close to Pinsky’s heart. “A couple of years ago, MEA funded three schools across the state that are carbon net neutral. They have geothermal in the field next door. They use heat pumps and solar power and are perfect examples,” said Pinsky, who also took members of his Senate committee to visit one of these schools in East Baltimore last year.
“These are working class and poor kids from East Baltimore. And schools like that bring awareness about clean energy to the students as well as their parents,” he said. “I would like to have similar examples across Maryland that can help break down a lot of misnomers about the new technology.” Doing this, he said, would not only create clean energy and a better environment, but clean energy jobs.
“I think schools are educational, not just for the kids but for the community and the parents. It’s a great place for us to invest our time, money and technology into,” he said. “We want to make inroads in schools across the state and it’s an area we’re looking at seriously.”
Streamlining transmission issues is also high on the agency’s to-do list for bringing the planned 8.4-gigawatt offshore wind projects announced recently from the eastern shore to Baltimore City. Pinsky said that the energy infrastructure needs significant upgrading just to link the projects that are already planned. And with new projects like offshore wind, he said, the PSC’s role in transmission planning will be more important than ever,
“I know there are a lot of things I’d like to do. But I’m nine weeks in and we’re still in a transition. And part of this is getting an understanding where the administration’s priorities are. So, we’re in prologue and the first chapter is yet to be written,” he said, putting his glasses down and sitting up straight in his chair.
“I try to fight the good fight, make a difference, and hopefully organize others to make a difference,” Pinsky said, as he got ready to meet with a group of teachers who had come to see him. “Hopefully I’m in a position where I can encourage the staff to push the envelope. Maybe one person can affect 10, and 10 can affect 100,” he said with a wry smile.