AUGUSTA, Maine — A new Maine climate plan virtually finalized on Thursday leans on existing initiatives and short-term goals while some crafting it called for more specific funding proposals and fought over recommendations for the forest products industry.
The Maine Climate Council was tasked over a year ago by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature with drafting a roadmap to meeting goals of getting 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources and reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The plan members discussed during a Thursday meeting will be sent to her on Dec. 1.
It sets up future conversations on transportation, weatherization and enhancing the forest products industry while setting a deadline to develop more energy-efficient building codes. It suggests financial programs to incentivize change but shies away from thorny funding conversations as the state faces a three-year budget shortfall of a projected $1.4 billion.
The plan, for example, recommends increasing the share of electric vehicles in new passenger car sales to 28 percent in 2025 and 100 percent by 2050. It also suggests reducing driving by hitting the state’s goal to connect 95 percent of the state to high-speed internet by 2025, allowing more people to work from home.
It recommends doubling the pace of weatherization programs to households to cover 17,500 additional homes and businesses within the next five years, with an end goal of 105,000 by 2050. Over 60,000 upgraded heat pumps have been installed in Maine over the last several years, according to the report, and it recommends the state install another 100,000 by 2025.
The focus fell on creating change in transportation and housing because the council could see a clear path to making those changes, said Hannah Pingree, who leads the Democratic governor’s Office of Policy and Innovation and the Future. The state is already making efforts to incentivize heat pumps and a revenue stream to bolster electric vehicle infrastructure in the state.
Those areas are also some of the most important to tackling climate change since transportation makes up 50 percent of the state’s emissions, and weatherization and better heating systems would help combat climate inequities that affect Maine’s most vulnerable communities, Pingree said.
“I would say the things that are most crucial for meeting our goals that are in there, extremely specifically,” she said.
The plan is largely unspecific on funding. It suggests raising Maine spending on road-based public transit from 85 cents per capita to the national median of $5 by 2024. Another commission convened by Mills punted on a solution to fixing the state’s long-standing transportation funding shortfall earlier this year amid disagreement on raising the gas tax.
The plan emphasizes taking advantage of low-interest borrowing rates and federal programs. Pingree said she “couldn’t predict” what the conversation in the Legislature would look like, but said the governor would likely be wary of introducing new fees and revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he could not comment on the climate plan but said his caucus would be opposed to any tax increases, especially during the pandemic. He was hopeful environmental changes could pass, but not by raising revenues.
“I don’t think there are going to be any revenues raised in the next two years,” he said.
Outgoing Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, said during the council’s Thursday meeting that not having an explicit funding recommendation could lead to the decisions being “punted” down the road. He said the state should explore imposing a scaled fee on rental cars as a target out-of-state visitors, with electric vehicles being subject to the lowest fee, or fees for “gas guzzler” vehicles.
One area of disagreement was the future of forest product industries in the state. The plan recommends increasing local biofuel by 2024 and growing the forest product industry from $8 billion to $12 billion, although no timeframe was attached to the latter.
Maine’s forest covers 90 percent of the state and captures over 60 percent of the state’s annual carbon emissions, according to the report. Pingree said there is division within the group on how to balance leaving forest untouched and utilizing them as a renewable fuel and building source.
Steve Golieb, a Millinocket town councilor who represents municipal government, said Thursday during the council’s final meeting he was hesitant to support further state investment in the industry unless they could demonstrate sustainability. Many paper mills have closed in recent years, including in his area, while others have announced layoffs during the pandemic.
“We’ve had too many examples of unfeasible biomass and biofuel industries in our state, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars and provided false hope to communities that have already experienced the trauma of lost industry,” he said.
Patrick Strauch, the executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, pushed back, saying the state needs to stand behind sustainable management of the forests. He called Golieb’s concerns a “last-minute sabotage” and said he would be concerned if the plan slowed down capital investment in the state.