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Maine environmental board pushes back decision on 'clean cars' mandate

Patty Wight
Maine Public
An electric vehicle charges in Jackman in 2022.

State environmental regulators have delayed a decision on a controversial "clean cars" proposal and may ask the Legislature to become more involved in future debate over vehicle emissions standards.

Amid last week's power outages and flooding, the state's Board of Environmental Protection postponed a planned vote on whether Maine should follow California's lead by requiring car dealers to significantly increase the percentage of electric vehicles they offer for sale. The delay then forced the BEP to push back the start date of the new regulations by a year and reopen the public comment period until Feb. 5.

Nearly a dozen other states — including Massachusetts and Vermont — have adopted variations of California's policy. And supporters of the proposal in Maine contend that it will help the state meet its ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging car manufacturers and dealers to sell zero-emissions cars in the state.

But the proposal has drawn stiff resistance from some in Maine and is increasingly becoming a partisan issue headed into the 2024 elections.

If adopted, the rules would require that, beginning with the 2028 model year, roughly half of the cars, SUVs and light-duty trucks sold in Maine be fully electric or plug-in hybrids. That figure would then rise to 82% by 2032. The board is also considering recommending that the Legislature review any future changes to vehicle emissions standards, although DEP spokesman David Madore said Thursday afternoon that those changes wouldn't affect the proposal now before the board.

Madore said the recommendation would change rulemaking for vehicle emission standards from "routine" matters handled by the department to "major substantive," thereby requiring legislative review and approval. That recommendation is expected to be included in a year-end report submitted to the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources committee.

"Some Board members and some members of the public raised this issue, leading to the anticipated recommendation that the Legislative consider whether any future rulemakings on the subject should be a major substantive rulemaking proceeding," Madore said.

But car dealers, Republican lawmakers and hundreds of commenters say the current proposal is unrealistic and would be overly costly, especially for rural Mainers. In statements and public comments submitted to the board, they argued that Maine's electric vehicle charging infrastructure as well as the power grid is inadequate to handle such a rapid transformation. And they said that electric vehicles — in addition to being cost prohibitive for many Mainers — are simply not feasible in rural areas of a cold-weather state.

Late last this week, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, the Republican House leader, said the Dec. 18th wind and rainstorm — which knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of residents — "showed how irresponsible the move to mandate electric vehicle sales is."

In an interview, Faulkingham reiterated his caucus's position on Thursday that this is an issue best handled by the Legislature.

"We think that decisions of this magnitude should not be bureaucratic decisions," Faulkingham said. "That's the reason why you have a representative Legislature to make big decisions like that. And that's who it should be in the hands of, so that it's accountable to the people."

Three environmental groups — the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club — formally petitioned the BEP to take the issue of whether Maine should adopt California's zero-emissions vehicles standards. Maine has previously adopted other vehicle emissions standards adopted by California.

The Legislature's 2024 session begins next Wednesday. The BEP is expected to take up the "clean cars" proposal sometime after the public comment period closes in early-February. In an earlier meeting, the majority of board members had signaled that they were not prepared to approve a related measure to require that dealers sell increasing percentages of larger trucks — including delivery vans, heavy-duty trucks and tractor trailers — that meet zero-emissions standards.