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Page last updated at 19:53 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Will US follow Maryland's green lead?

By Katty Kay
BBC News, Washington

When Court Stevenson looks out on the Chesapeake Bay, he sees far more water and far less land than he used to.

Smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant
Energy companies fear the speedy adoption of a cap-and-trade system

"We've lost 30,000 acres right here," says Mr Stevenson, an environmental scientist who has been studying the bay since the early 1970s.

The impact of global warming is hard to ignore - rising sea levels are contributing to massive erosion, threatening Maryland's 3,000 miles of coastline.

Aboard a charter fishing boat in early January, we did not have other boat traffic to worry about.

Mr Stevenson took us out to James Island, which is now three islands, or patches of land.

The rising water has covered what was once a thriving community - 150 years ago there were two schools, a shop and a shipbuilding yard.

Mr Stevenson said it will all be gone in 30 years.

"Americans have to change their energy consumption habits," he concludes.

Cleaner smoke

Part of the reason for these dramatic scenes on the bay lies two hours north, where smokestacks spewing toxic emissions dot the coastline around Baltimore, Maryland, the state's industrial capital.

But today there is less smoke, and cleaner smoke coming from those smokestacks than in the past.

Maryland officials decided, in the face of federal apathy, to strike out on their own, securing passage of comprehensive clean air legislation three years ago.

I caught up with the state's Environmental Secretary Shari Wilson in her department's newly-green headquarters - the 1920s-era Montgomery Ward building has been outfitted with two green roofs and recycled carpeting.

"We've got to change the way we do business in every form - from how we use energy in our home, to our transportation choices, to how we produce energy," said Ms Wilson.

There is a way and a time and a place to do global warming policy
Scott Segal, Energy lobbyist

The progress in Maryland is due in part to the actions of coal plants like those at Brandon Shores, half an hour south of Baltimore.

Constellation Energy, which runs the operation here, is making an effort - at great expense - to clean its coal production.

For close to $1bn, Constellation is building a "scrubber", standing several storeys high, which will strip acid-rain-producing sulphur from its coal emissions.

It still will not cut down on CO2 emissions, but it will make this one of the least-polluting coal-burning plants in America.

'Dumping ground'

Paul Allen, a senior executive at Constellation Energy, understands that environmentalists abhor coal, but Americans still get half their electricity from coal, so realistically, it has to be dealt with.

As I listened to Mr Allen, I could not help thinking he sounded more like an environmental activist than the representative of the nation's largest wholesale power seller.

Five years at the progressive Natural Resources Defense Council no doubt helped shape his views.

"We've been using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for greenhouse gases, and we're not going to be able to do that any longer, and that ultimately will be affected in the price for electric power," he told me

Mr Allen believes that the time has come for national standards, and he hopes President Obama will enact them.

Mr Obama pledged to put environmental policy at the heart of his platform. During the campaign he promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and implement a cap-and-trade programme.

But will the energy industry co-operate?

The halls of Congress are already swarming with lobbyists for American power companies, concerned that the inevitable price rise will wipe out their competitive advantage.

Scott Segal, who represents the interests of energy companies, supports a cap-and-trade policy, but told me Mr Obama should not move too fast.

"We're trying to impress upon members of congress and upon the administration that there is a way and a time and a place to do global warming policy," says Mr Segal.

"It's not to try and do everything at once; if you do that, the programme won't work, and you will harm the economy."

But as the waves lap against what is left of James Island, it is clear that the Chesapeake Bay does not have much time.

Katty Kay is a correspondent for BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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