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Environment and Outdoors

Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan Wins Praise in Maine

WASHINGTON - For the first time ever, power plants must limit carbon emissions under a Clean Power Plan released today by the Obama administration. The plan sets a target of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Environment and health advocates across the state are calling the plan the single most important action the U.S. has taken to reduce carbon emissions. But there are concerns that Congress might may try to undermine the plan.

The U.S. is at the beginning of a 10- to 20-year transition period, says former Maine state economist Charlie Colgan, when demand for fossil fuels to generate electricity will significantly drop. "This rule today will speed that along by quite a bit," Colgan says.

And Maine, says former Public Advocate Steve Ward, is well on its way toward meeting the Clean Power Plan's goals for 2030. "For the rest of the country, a race is now just getting underway. But we're already in the back stretch of the race because we started in 2007."

That's the year that nine states - including Maine - came together to form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. "RGGI" is a cap-and-trade program that sells emission allowances through auctions, then invests the proceeds in renewable energy. In Maine, funds from RGGI support Efficiency Maine programs. In 2014, Ward says, RGGI generated more than $10 million for Efficiency Maine.

"It's hard to find the money to help Maine get off oil, but we absolutely have to do that," Ward says. "And the fact that there's a source of money that can be deployed for low-income customers I think is particularly positive."

The Clean Power Plan includes the RGGI model as an option for other states to tackle carbon emissions. Charlie Colgan says not only does Maine benefit from being ahead of the game, it will also see a shift in its high energy costs compared to the rest of the nation. "The people who have essentially enjoyed the subsidies of using the air to keep their electricity costs low are not going to have that advantage anymore," Colgan says.

The plan also garnered support from the Friends of Maine's Mountains, which opposes wind turbines on the state's peaks. Spokesperson Chris O'Neil says that's because the future of renewable energy is in hydro and biomass sources.

"Intermittent, unpredictable sources like wind and solar being deployed somewhat in Maine, they can't replace or even displace the dirty power plants that the EPA is seeking to close," O'Neil says.

Tony Buxton, an Augusta lawyer for the Coalition to Lower Energy Costs and the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, says action on carbon emissions is long overdue from the federal government.

"The critical factor is to add intelligent, reasonable, minimally disruptive action to achieve the results," Buxton says, "and this plan is quite remarkable in its capacity to achieve this result with a minimum amount of disruption."

That's a point that GOP congressman Bruce Poliquin, of Maine, isn't sold on just yet. In a written statement, Poliquin says protecting the environment is critical, but government over-regulation has led to higher energy prices in Maine, forcing many paper mills to close.  Poliquin says he will continue to review the plan, keeping in mind that any measure of "quality of life" must include a paycheck.

But independent Sen. Angus King says the U.S. has to take the lead on clean power. "This is a global issue. China has to get into it, India has to get into it. And there's no way we're going to be able to make them start to make the realistic, hard decisions until we start doing it ourselves. We have 5 percent of the world's population, and we use 25 percent of the world's energy. And in the long run, that's not sustainable."

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is seen as a potential threat to the Clean Power Plan, because lawmakers could vote to repeal the rule or change it through amendments. In a statement, Republican Sen. Susan Collins says she's pleased that the plan is more flexible than originally proposed and that it allows the use of biomass. But she says she'll review it further to ensure that it creates responsible and realistic regulations to support biomass markets in Maine and other states.