Dan Rodricks: Maryland people, meet the Maryland


Somewhat nerdy historical fact: Next year will mark a century since the Maryland General Assembly established the Office of the People’s Counsel, making it the oldest utility consumer advocacy office in the nation.

So, despite what you thought — if you thought about it at all — the OPC was not born in the crunchy era. It did not emerge with the first Earth Day. It was not Ralph Nader’s idea.

It was the idea of mustachioed men of the Progressive Era in the first quarter of the 20th century. They thought Marylanders needing gas and electricity for their homes and businesses should have someone representing them when the big utility companies ask the Public Service Commission to approve their rates.

Between 1910 and 1924, progressives established the PSC to regulate the monopolistic power providers, then the People’s Counsel to represent customers.

Go back 100 years, and you’ll see all kinds of evidence that Maryland was way out in front of other states when it came to improving the quality of life here: Pasteurized milk and higher food sanitation standards, a workmen’s compensation system, state care for the mentally ill, conservationist regulation of oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay, a commission that bought out the private toll roads and improved road transportation, and the People’s Counsel.

The current person in that role is David Lapp, a 55-year-old public-interest attorney who has been in the weeds of utility regulation for several years.

Lapp and his small staff of lawyers and consumer advocates are on our side; they represent Maryland ratepayers at a historic time — as this blue state moves ahead with one of the most ambitious climate plans in the country.

The goal is a 60% reduction in planet-heating gas emissions by 2031 and carbon neutrality by 2045. Lapp is right in the middle of a complicated, multilayered effort to balance private and public interests on the way to meeting those goals. It’s a heavy lift.

Noticeable almost from the day he took office two years ago is Lapp’s frequent public statements, PSC filings and essays in The Baltimore Sun taking issue with BGE’s huge investment in gas when, he says, the state should be moving toward expanded electrification to meet our climate goals.

“I think the biggest consumer and environmental issue going on in the state right now is the spending by the gas utilities on gas infrastructure,” he says.

More electrification would be best for customers, Lapp says, while BGE’s high-profile repair and expansion of gas lines will mostly benefit shareholders. The PSC, he has argued, needs to steer BGE and the other energy companies in another direction.

“It’s time for a reality check in Maryland,” Lapp wrote in a Sun op-ed. “The state’s gas utilities are making massive long-term investments in their gas delivery systems even though gas use must decline rapidly to meet Maryland’s aggressive climate goals and electric technologies are outperforming fossil fuels.”

One June 20, Lapp issued a news release related to that issue, arguing BGE’s proposals for the coming years will cause “massive” rate increases for customers.

“These multiyear rate cases may be good for utility investors, but they are leading to explosive rate increases for customers,” he said. “They incentivize utilities to shoot for the moon with massive spending proposals, then accelerate customer payments of anticipated costs with little accountability as to how the utility actually spends those customer dollars.”

A couple of weeks ago, Lapp openly criticized a PSC ruling that, he said, allows the commission “to indefinitely or permanently ignore matters that OPC raises to protect residential customers — for arbitrary, nontransparent reasons.”

So who is this guy?

David Lapp grew up in Pittsburgh and, at an early age, took an interest in what you might generally call the public good — that is, advocacy for the environment, corporate accountability and robust consumer protection.

After graduation from Earlham College in Indiana, he became a writer for Corporate Crime Reporter and, later, the editor of an environmental journal. It was during those years that Lapp started to learn about big power companies, utility policy and regulation.

By the time he came to Baltimore to study law at the University of Maryland, Lapp had decided on a career in public advocacy. During law school, he met a man who became a major influence — Scott Hempling, an expert in utility law and policy and author of, “Preside or Lead? The Attributes and Actions of Effective Regulators.”

Lapp had a couple of copies of that book in his office in downtown Baltimore the other day. He worked in Hempling’s small practice for a few years and learned a lot about utility regulation.

“I knew when I went to law school, or even when I graduated from college, I was never going to go into a big firm,” he says. “I was never about, you know, money. One of my biggest interests was always corporate accountability.”

Joe Curran, who was Maryland Attorney General at the time, hired Lapp in 2004, and he spent the next 16 years as an assistant AG, at one point serving as chief counsel in the states’ historic settlement with Big Tobacco. Lapp was also deputy counsel for the Maryland Department of Health until he moved into his present role. Former AG Brian Frosh appointed him to a five-year term in 2021.

Based on what I’ve seen and heard so far, Frosh appears to have left the gas and electric customers of Maryland in strong hands.

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