AUGUSTA – A plan to limit global warming pollution from power plants—the first such effort in the United States—is about to reach Maine’s Legislature.
The Baldacci administration has been negotiating for about three years with eight other Northeastern states to create the plan, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The administration is expected to introduce a final proposal as soon as next week and formally request legislative approval for Maine to participate.
Nearly two dozen environmental advocacy groups announced Tuesday that the global warming plan is among their top priorities in the new legislative session.
The global warming plan is sure to face scrutiny from Maine’s power generators, as well as large manufacturers that fear it could lead to an escalation of already-high energy costs.
David Littell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the global warming plan clearly is a priority for the administration of Gov. John Baldacci.
“This is probably one of the predominant environmental issues for the whole second term,” he said.
While Littell would not discuss details of the final plan, he said it would enable power producers throughout the region to buy and sell allowances to discharge carbon dioxide, a primary heat-trapping gas. If Maine participates, the state would have a certain number of allowances to distribute to its six large power plants.
The initiative would take effect in 2009 and require pollution reductions over time.
The system should encourage power producers to pollute less, but it also would increase electricity prices for industries and for residential customers.
Advocates said they are confident that the public and the Legislature are motivated to fight climate change, especially with the recent mild weather providing a taste of what could be in store for the state.
Lawmakers, however, are sure to debate critical details, such as whether the state should give the pollution allowances to power plants for free, or auction them off to pay for conservation and energy efficiency programs.
“That’s what the debate is going to be about — what to do with that money,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The coalition of environmental groups Tuesday called for auctioning off all of the allowances. That could generate as much as $30 million for conservation incentives and programs that would reduce global warming pollution further and allow consumers to save money in the long run, Voorhees said.
The program would increase electricity costs in the short term, said Stephen Ward, Maine’s public advocate. Residential customers could see rates go up between $3 and $50 a year, depending on the value of allowances, he said.
Ward is a strong supporter of the program. If done right, he said, it would slow global warming and ultimately save money for power customers.
Power generators are waiting for the details, too. “We’re watching closely,” said John Flumerfelt of Calpine Corp., owner of Westbrook Energy.
The company has supported the general plan, he said, in part because it has invested in clean technology. “It’s going to tend to reward cleaner generators and penalize dirtier generators,” Flumerfelt said.
He said power companies would pass on the costs of buying allowances, so it wouldn’t be a burden on companies that pollute less. But the idea of charging power generators for the allowances is expected to face strong opposition.
Large manufacturers are worried about an increase of as much as 10 percent in their energy costs, said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents companies that use large amounts of energy.
“They are very sensitive to energy prices,” he said of his clients. “A lot of really good jobs are at stake. There really is a moral dimension to this.”
Littell, at the DEP, said the details of Maine’s plan would have little effect on energy prices because other Northeastern states have larger power industries and they are already planning to auction off their allowances.
“The key is making the system work the best as it can for Maine,” Littell said
THE ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDA
More than 20 environmental and public health organizations joined forces Tuesday to highlight six legislative priorities for the year. They are:
- Approve Maine’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Northeastern states’ effort to cap global warming pollution from power plants.
- Provide new funding — $25 million a year — for the Land for Maine’s Future Program for land preservation.
- Adopt a state endangered- and threatened-species list that includes 14 new animals, from the New England cottontail to the brook floater, a freshwater mussel.
- Require a phaseout of products containing Deca, a toxic flame retardant.
- Approve a $25 million bond to help communities revitalize riverfronts.
- Prevent weakening or rollbacks of current environmental protections.