By Tom Tietenberg
Kennebec Journal op-ed
Several recent reports, coming from very different perspectives, have made a strong case for the world to take action to diminish the risks posed by climate change. These include the papal encyclical, which makes the moral case; a recent EPA report, which quantifies the economic case; and the report from the medical community published in the journal Lancet, which makes the human health case.
All these reports focus on the necessity of acting now to mitigate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.
It seems reasonable, then, to ask “how is Maine doing in terms of carbon dioxide emissions reduction?” One barometer of progress (or lack of progress) is the activity of the Maine Legislature this year.
According to the Energy Information Administration, Maine had the fifth-largest percentage reduction in carbon dioxide emissions among all states during the period 1990-2012. To seek the sources of this reduction, we have to look no further than the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, energy efficiency investments and the transition to lower carbon fuels. On the other hand, Maine is dead last among the Northeastern states in installed solar capacity per capita, a consequence of our relatively weak state solar policies. This is a concern, especially since rapidly falling solar prices offer especially promising opportunities to move forward.
Some bills that would have been quite damaging to progress on climate change fortunately did not become law. For example, L.D.1191 would have severely weakened the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code. This bill, if enacted, would have severely curtailed the main means for protecting unsuspecting homeowners from buying energy inefficient homes.
Another potentially damaging bill (L.D. 1400) also did not become law. It sought to repeal Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and net-metering policies — two major pieces of Maine law that promote renewable energy development.
Perhaps the best news, however, was the passage of L.D. 1215. This bill, known popularly as the “and” bill, corrected a clerical error in previous legislation that had resulted in the potential loss of some $38 million in funding for Efficiency Maine programs. Since Efficiency Maine has proved to be a powerful source of funding for both lower energy costs to Mainers and lower emissions of carbon dioxide, it may have been the most important climate-related bill before the Legislature this year.
Gov. Paul LePage opposed this bill, seeking more personal control over Efficiency Maine. Yet this organization has generated enormous energy savings while acting independently of politics, with rigorous oversight by the Public Utilities Commission. When the Legislature rejected the governor’s approach, he vetoed the bill as promised. His veto was overridden by unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate.
Another bill (L.D. 1263) originally was intended to encourage solar energy by reducing some of the financial and regulatory barriers to its development, but the committee replaced it resolve.
The resolve directs the Public Utilities Commission to convene a stakeholder group to revise the current net metering policy that would be acceptable to all stakeholders (including significantly, the utilities, who currently oppose Maine’s net metering program). This approach was based upon an earlier white paper issued by the Office of the Public Advocate that suggested a win-win solution might be possible.
Although LePage also vetoed this resolve, his veto was overridden. Regardless of how the resolve process ultimately may work out, it won’t come close to reducing emissions as much as the original bill would have.
The Legislature also decided to postpone any consideration of a proposed bond (L.D. 1341) that would have enabled Efficiency Maine to help an additional 30,000 homeowners invest in weatherization and energy efficient heating systems.
Our legislators were successful this session, not only in blocking several potentially very harmful bills that could have caused significant damage to Maine’s existing programs, but also in preventing a cut of $38 million to Efficiency Maine.
The partisan nature of current politics, however, prevented our legislators from moving the state forward on solar policy. As a result, relative to the other states in our region, our state unfortunately will fall further behind in this increasingly important area.
Tom Tietenberg, the Mitchell Family professor of economics, emeritus at Colby College, is a member of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s board of directors and Public Policy Team. He has been involved with designing and evaluating global, national and state climate polices for more than 25 years.