by Steve Mistler
Maine Public news story
From carbon taxes to the Maine version of the Green New Deal, Democratic state lawmakers are pitching a slew of bills designed to address the threat of climate change.
While Democrats have introduced climate bills before, the proposals had no real chance to become law during Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s eight years in office. Now, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is signaling that climate policy will be a priority for her administration. The challenge for Democrats will be balancing the urgency of climate change with the political risks of increasing electricity costs or taxes.
Democratic Rep. Deane Rykerson of Kittery wants fossil fuel producers to pay for the damage they’re doing to the atmosphere.
“Carbon: can’t live with it — and we can’t live with it,” Rykerson said during a State House press conference Tuesday showcasing his carbon pricing bill.
If enacted, fossil fuel producers would pay Maine a fee for the carbon emissions they create. Instead of that fee going into government coffers, it would be redirected to electricity ratepayers as a dividend — potentially used by Mainers for home efficiency upgrades or, perhaps, rooftop solar.
No other state has instituted such a law, but Maine is one of several states that will consider doing so this legislative session, and the concept has been utilized by Sweden and British Columbia, Canada.
The Maine proposal would charge $5 per ton of carbon emissions, with the fee increasing every year.
Rykerson said the Maine proposal is still in draft form, and that he’s hoping for an ally in the governor’s office.
“As our governor said during her inaugural address, the time to deal with climate catastrophe is right now,” he said.
Not only did Mills highlight climate change as a priority during her inaugural address, but she used her speech to make a clarion call.
“Enough with studies, talk and debate. It is time to act,” she said.
Mills’ eagerness to tackle climate change is just one reason why there are so many bills like Rykerson’s this legislative session — more than 100 so far.
The proposals run the gamut from updating Maine’s climate action plan to a big push to restart a renewable energy development sector that has stagnated during the eight previous years.
That’s the other reason for the number of measures this year: LePage made a habit of vetoing climate-related bills that managed to get out of the Legislature.
Critics also blame him and some Republicans for thwarting proposals that would have jump-started renewable energy development in Maine.
“I think what we now have is a opportunity to restart those conversations and make up for lost time,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Didisheim said there’s a real chance to advance climate policy with Democrats in control of the Legislature and Mills in the governor’s office. He said it begins with updating Maine’s climate action plan, a document that guides state and municipal planners on ways to prepare for and tackle climate change, from designing roads in coastal areas experiencing rising sea levels to policies designed to curb or mitigate carbon emissions.
Maine’s last climate plan was drafted 14 years ago.
“So we need to have an updated plan with ambitious goals that help guide our overall policy approach,” he said.
Sen. James Dill, a Democrat from Old Town, is sponsoring the climate action plan bill, which he said will update the previous plan’s focus on greenhouse gas emissions and introduce other initiatives to deal with warming in the Gulf of Maine, ocean acidification and renewable energy.
Dill said there’s an urgency behind bills such as his, and a growing awareness that the changing climate demands a public response.
“I think people’s eyes are really starting to open to the concerns about climate change,” he said.
Dill’s point about awareness comes as more and more Americans say they’re experiencing the effects of climate change.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, roughly 6 in 10 respondents said climate change affected their local community either a great deal or some.
But while some awareness and concern is increasing, concrete actions to deal with the changing climate have been lacking in Maine and other states.
There are multiple reasons for this, including increased partisanship and what some analysts believe is a sort of fatalism — that the problem is just too big. There are also concerns that aggressive policies could backfire politically, as one did in France earlier this year when the government instituted a dramatic tax on diesel fuel.
It appears unlikely that the Maine Legislature will pass any bills that would ignite protests like those witnessed in France. But climate change policy can run the risk of backlash, either through higher fees on electric bills or changes that affect how companies do business.
“I’m all about economics, too, believe me,” Mills said. “I’m not about to spend any public dollars in any frivolous way.”
Mills hasn’t yet announced any specific proposals, or endorsed any of the dozens that will be considered by the Legislature. But she has emphasized the potential to make Maine not just a user of renewable energy but also a manufacturer.
And Maine has some ground to gain on that front.
According to a 2017 survey of solar manufacturing, Massachusetts trails only California in solar industry job creation. Maine, meanwhile, lags behind all the New England states.
Mills said that needs to change.
“It’s all a part of bringing people back to Maine, too. When you tour some of the solar facilities, the manufacturers and the installers, it’s mostly young people who are working there,” she said. “And they seem so excited about their work because they feel they’re doing something good for humanity, good for the environment. They enjoy what they’re doing.”
Mills said the economic argument could be helpful in advancing the environmental cause, especially given that Mainers spend an estimated $5 billion on fossil fuels.
“And that is a good reason, a very good reason, why everybody should be on board with weaning off of fossil fuels for home heating, for instance,” she said.
How exactly Mills plans to pursue that agenda is unclear. But she and the Democrats who control the Legislature have a lot of proposals to choose from.