A motorist prepares to pump gas on April 22, 2021, in Portland. Maine's goals call for 219,000 electric vehicles to be on the road by 2030, but the pace of sales isn't rising quickly enough to meet it. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine environmental groups want the state to follow California in phasing out the sale of gas-powered cars and trucks and shifting to zero-emission vehicles.

While Maine has joined other states in the past in adopting vehicle emissions standards that originated in California, Gov. Janet Mills said last year she was not in favor of “blindly” following California’s 2035 mandate. Environmentalists are now trying to force the state’s hand through a little-known rulemaking process, and some transportation groups are criticizing the proposals.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine collected the required 150 signatures from registered voters earlier this year to petition the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to adopt California’s zero- and low-emission vehicle regulations. Another California regulation proposed for Maine would aim to encourage the sale of more electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

The council and allies including the Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation submitted the proposals through a provision in state law that allows anyone to ask an agency to adopt or change a rule as long as 150 registered voters sign a petition.

The Board of Environmental Protection will hear the proposals at a Thursday meeting at the Augusta Civic Center. A public hearing will also occur Aug. 20 before the board is expected to make a decision later this year. Each member has been appointed or reappointed by Mills.

California adopted rules last year to prohibit the sale of gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035, with targets of having 35 percent of zero-emission vehicle sales by 2026, 68 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035.

The Maine petitions do not have a 2035 requirement. Instead, they look to incentivize manufacturers to increase electric vehicle sales while requiring Maine by 2028 to review progress in order to determine if the board should adopt the California mandate.

The proposals here would require light-duty, zero-emission vehicles to make up 43 percent of sales for model year 2027 and make up 82 percent of sales in model year 2032.

“By not adopting this rule in 2022, we already missed the requirement for the 2026 model year, so the most important thing is we get started,” said Jack Shapiro, who leads the council’s climate and clean energy work. “Otherwise, we’re going to fall behind.”

Exempt from the proposed rules are emergency, off-road, rural postal carrier and military vehicles, along with rental vehicles that have a final destination outside Maine.

Mills, a Democrat, said last August she favors electric vehicle incentives but “would not be inclined to adopt any mandate along those lines.” Ben Goodman, her spokesperson, said Tuesday the governor continues to believe Maine should not let “decisions by any other state determine Maine’s course of action.”

“Instead, we should commit to a responsible, thoughtful approach to electric vehicles that will help Maine consumers and businesses save money, while reducing carbon emissions and protecting our economy and environment from the climate crisis,” he said.

Other groups opposed to the proposed rules include the Maine Better Transportation Association and Associated General Contractors of Maine.

“We support a voluntary adoption, but we just think that we’re not ready to try to force fleets or manufacturers to move forward at this point,” Maria Fuentes, the executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said. “There’s just too many hurdles right now that really make it not feasible.”

Matt Marks, who lobbies for the construction group, said while the industry is not against electric vehicles, it has particular concerns about rural areas meeting the requirements.

“We don’t know if the conditions are there yet for us to be able to do this,” he said.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine said despite the state’s statutory goal of reducing emissions 45 percent below 1990 levels within the next decade and 80 percent in 2050, the state missed a 2021 rulemaking deadline and has failed to adopt policies on the largest contributor: transportation.

About half of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, a share that has historically been far higher than the national average in part due to long commutes.

The Mills administration has set an ambitious goal of having 219,000 electric vehicles registered in the state by 2030. But as the Bangor Daily News reported in May, the state had so far reached only about 4 percent of its goal, with roughly 9,500 electric vehicles.

As the state’s air, land and water face continued challenges amid a rise in severe storms, flooding and Canadian wildfires, the Maine Climate Council will meet later this year to start updating the four-year plan that was adopted in 2020.

Shapiro said his group surveyed electric vehicle owners in Maine last year and found “99 percent of them” are satisfied with their quality and reliability.

“People will still be able to buy used vehicles or drive the vehicles they already have,” Shapiro said. “But we have to reduce emissions, and we have to do it quickly.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the name of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...