AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills outlined an extensive climate agenda on Thursday, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, work toward 100 percent renewable electricity generation and to work with other governors on regional solutions.

Gov. Janet Mills wants to create a climate council of experts.

Mills said she joined a coalition of more than 20 governors committed to pursuing the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the international pact. To that end, Mills will propose the creation of a Maine Climate Council – comprised of scientists, state leaders and industry representatives – to develop an “action plan” while helping Maine communities adapt to a changing climate.

The Democrat had campaigned hard on climate issues, often accusing her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, of undermining Maine’s renewable energy industry and denying the threat posed by rising sea levels and warming temperatures. On Thursday, Mills told several hundred people attending an Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine event that the state “cannot wait a day longer.”

“We in Maine don’t need another report to tell us what we already know: that our climate is changing, that it is changing rapidly, that it will have profound implications for all of us and for future generations, and that there is very limited time to address it,” Mills told the E2Tech Council. “We know this because here in Maine we are witnessing changes firsthand.”

Mills’ message was well received by the environment, energy and business leaders in attendance. Hours later, however, a public hearing on a controversial proposal to enact a “carbon tax” highlighted the political and economic challenges of aggressively tackling climate issues in a large, rural state that relies heavily on heating oil and private vehicles, rather than public transit, for transportation.

“This is a middle- and low-income family crushing tax,” said Nick Isgro, the mayor of Waterville and vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

Mills said she had not yet read the bill but appeared lukewarm to the concept on Thursday.

“I’ll listen to the testimony and look at the bill,” Mills said when asked about the carbon tax. “No other state has done it.”

MAINE CLIMATE COUNCIL WILL LEAD

Since taking office in January, the Mills administration has announced plans to install solar panels on the grounds of the governor’s mansion and ended a LePage moratorium on wind power permits that was never enforced. The governor also used her speech to the E2Tech Council to reiterate her pledges to expand utilization of heat pumps and to “vigorously support the University of Maine to lead the country in offshore floating platform wind technology development.”

Mills also announced Maine’s participation in the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 22 governors committed to the goals outlined by the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries. President Trump has since withdrawn from the pact, but members of the U.S. Climate Alliance aim to live up to the goal of reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by the year 2025 and by 80 percent in 2050.

Nick Isgro, right, Waterville’s mayor and the Maine Republican Party vice chair, walks with a group of carbon tax opponents into the Cross State Office Building on Thursday to oppose “An Act To Price Carbon Pollution in Maine.” Isgro called it “a middle- and low-income family crushing tax.” Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“While the federal government ignores its responsibility to combat climate change, Maine will work with states across the country to meet the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord,” Mills said.

The Mills administration has not released any specifics on how to accomplish that goal or how to move Maine toward generating 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 or the longer-term goal of 100 percent by 2050. Mills said the Maine Climate Council, which she will propose in a bill to the Legislature, would discuss those goals and recommend actions to the Legislature.

“We need to consult with the industries affected, we need to consult with the scientists and we need to have the input of all sectors of the economy and the wider Maine community,” Mills said. “I don’t have the expertise personally to sit down and draft a bill that will reduce our fossil fuel dependency, but I know there are an awful lot of ideas out there that have been brewing for many years.”

Environmental conservation groups – including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Environment Maine and American Farmland Trust – praised Mills’ formation of the Maine Climate Council and decision to join the multistate coalition.

“By joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, and setting ambitious – but achievable – goals for reducing carbon pollution and increasing renewable energy, Mills is showing the state-level leadership that our country needs,” Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “With Washington unable or unwilling to act, it’s up to leaders such as Gov. Mills to take bold steps to fight climate change and protect our environment for future generations.”

LAWMAKERS EXPLORE CARBON TAX

Climate-related issues are expected to attract more attention this year in both Augusta and Washington, D.C., following last November’s Democratic wins.

On Thursday afternoon, a legislative committee heard several hours of testimony on a bill that would impose a carbon tax – or “assessment” – on heating oil, gasoline, kerosene and other fossil fuels. The assessment would begin at $5 “per metric ton of carbon content” – and increasing annually by $5 to $40 per metric ton – on fuel distributors, refiners or manufacturers with proceeds used to reduce utility customers’ bills.

Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, talks to reporters before Thursday’s hearing on his bill, “An Act To Price Carbon Pollution in Maine.” He said fees on fossil fuels have proven successful in other countries, but he offered to replace his bill with a “Carbon Pricing Study Group” to examine the issue and recommend changes. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Bill sponsor Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, proposed replacing the bill on Thursday with a “Carbon Pricing Study Group” to examine the issue and recommend changes. But Rykerson said fees on fossil fuels have proven successful in other countries – including Sweden and the Canadian province of British Columbia – in reducing fossil fuel combustion and encouraging investment in renewable energy or more efficient systems.

“The problem that we are looking at is how to return that fee to Mainers in an equitable fashion, which is why I am proposing a legislative study with stakeholders to look at how that fee can be returned to everybody in Maine who is impacted by the carbon fee. We can come back next year with a bill to both stimulate our economy and advantage of lower carbon emissions.”

But the Maine Republican Party and the Maine People Before Politics – an organization created by LePage – organized opponents who turned out by the dozens to oppose a bill that they said would merely harm lower-income Mainers and the state’s economy.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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