Editorial: The cart, the horse and the carbon fee

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced that Maine would join 22 other states as part of the U.S. Climate Alliance to pursue the goals outlined by the Paris Climate Agreement — an international effort that President Trump abandoned. This is a step on the path to 100 percent renewable electricity in Maine by 2050, the governor said.

“We in Maine don’t need another report to tell us what we already know,” Mills said last Thursday, “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. We know this because here in Maine we are witnessing changes firsthand.”

Hours after the governor’s announcement, legislators opened testimony on a “carbon assessment” bill. The bill would have brought Maine in line with several New England states proposing to add a $5-a-ton carbon fee to gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel and propane produced or consumed.

Pushback on what was dubbed a “carbon tax” was instant. Lawmakers were reminded that ours is a rural state whose residents rely on heating oil to stay warm and private vehicles to get around. It’s not like there’s practical public 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.

The carbon assessment bill, details of which were sketchy, was withdrawn by its primary sponsor, Deane Ryerson (D-Kittery). Ryerson then proposed a new bill: a Carbon Pricing Study Group that would request money for further research. That bill didn’t push quite so many buttons. A deliberative approach involving a study is far more constructive than a vaguely worded carbon fee.

Democratic state Rep. Nicole Grohoski, who represents Ellsworth and Trenton, observed, reasonably, that a “carbon fee and dividend is a method for putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution, much as chemical polluters must pay to clean-up our land or water. It is widely supported by economists as the most effective and fair way to limit climate change and reduce the devastating effects that we are just starting to feel (sea level rise, lobster migration, tick infestation, to name a few).

“A carbon fee may not be the ultimate answer,” she continued, “but it is a feasible, market-based solution that has been supported elsewhere across political parties and deserves a serious discussion in Maine. That is why the bill sponsor presented an amendment to the original bill to conduct a study before implementing this approach, with a particular emphasis on ensuring low-income residents and small businesses are not unduly affected. In the end, I will only support legislation that balances the pressing need to fight climate change with the very real concerns of industry and consumers.”

Gov. Mills acknowledged that her administration has few specifics on how the state will meet her renewable energy goals, or what the financial impact will be for residents, businesses and the overall economy. Absent details about hydro power’s role or carbon fees’ impact, skeptics can be forgiven for thinking that legislators got ahead of the governor’s plan.

A measured, steady approach is necessary for the governor to advance her climate change goals.

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