New legislative session brings opportunities for bold climate action, advocates say

Students at a climate protest at the Portland City Hall in 2019 | Dan Neumann

A new legislative session is beginning in Maine, and with it comes a slate of environmental policies that advocates hope will improve the state’s ability to address and mitigate the impacts of climate change while also protecting people’s health in the near-term.

Offshore wind power, public transportation, the right to a healthy environment and taking on the fossil fuel industry are all on the docket for lawmakers this session, among other priorities. 

The legislature’s continued focus on the environment comes as the climate crisis around the world has already escalated faster than expected, wreaking havoc in the form of powerful storms, droughts, flooding and vanishing biodiversity. 

In Maine, the consequences of inaction would be dire. Climate models suggest Maine could experience warming between 2 degrees and 4 degrees by 2050 and up to 10 degrees by 2100, depending on the success of curbing emissions. 

However, a single state is inherently limited in what it can do to address warming temperatures. Climate change is a global issue and emissions know no borders. As a result, experts say it will take international action to truly address the scope of the issue. 

Still, advocates and lawmakers say Maine can do its part to cut its emissions by investing in renewable energy sources and green transportation while also providing funds to respond to and help mitigate the impacts of climate change and the tools to allow citizens to hold government accountable for its responsibility to ensure a healthy environment. 

“The faster we can pass bold climate action, the faster we can move ourselves toward transitioning off fossil fuels and adapting and mitigating and getting into renewables. So to me, every session is important and every session has to take steps forward,” said Amy Eshoo, director of Maine Climate Action Now (MCAN), a coalition of state-based environmental groups. 

Climate legislation this session

One of the most significant climate-related bills being introduced this year is the Pine Tree Amendment, a proposal that would change the Maine Constitution to include the right to a healthy environment. First put forward in 2021 by then-Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln) and a coalition of grassroots advocates, the measure failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to send it to the people for a vote, primarily due to Republican opposition

As Beacon previously reported, last session’s measure would have provided the public with the ability to hold government accountable for environmental degradation and would have ensured that strong climate policy isn’t subject to the changing political whims but is instead enshrined in the constitution. 

Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco) said she will reintroduce the Pine Tree Amendment this year in the same form as Maxmin’s bill. Rep. Sophie Warren (D-Scarborough) has also proposed a Pine Tree Amendment bill title. 

“While Maine has pretty strong environmental laws compared to other states, there’s always room for improvement and constitutional amendments function like a backstop when there is a gap in statute that isn’t protective enough,” O’Neil said of the importance of the legislation. 

O’Neil, who serves on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said she is also looking this session to pass legislation to strategically store and sequester carbon, an important method for reducing emissions

“Industry is focusing a lot on taking the carbon in the air but not keeping it in the ground. It’s kind of a sham if you don’t focus on how we keep it in the ground,” she said. 

In addition, O’Neil is working with youth activists on bills to increase access to energy-efficient transportation in Maine. That’s important because transportation is responsible for the bulk of Maine’s emissions at 54%. A majority of those emissions (59%) come from passenger cars and trucks. To respond to that, O’Neil said she is pushing a plan, alongside grassroots organizers, to develop a strategy for commuter rail in Maine to reduce the need to drive and is also hoping to increase state support to make existing public transportation more accessible and easy to use. 

Another significant priority this session will be jumpstarting the development of offshore wind. Advocates, including MCAN and Maine Conservation Voters, are lining up behind a bill unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Mark Lawrence (D-York), chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. That measure is meant to increase the development of renewable energy by mandating the competitive procurement of 2.8 GW of floating offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine in the next 12 years, which advocates say could power 980,000 homes.  

“We feel that this is a huge opportunity to transition from fossil fuels into a renewable resource that we have access to and has the potential to relieve our energy burden,” Eshoo said, noting that it’s important to move forward on the legislation now since the development of offshore wind power will be a lengthy process. 

A climate justice rally in Augusta | Courtesy of 350 Maine

Activists are also focused on making renewable energy sources accessible. Ania Wright of Sierra Club Maine said that group is supporting a bill to allow consumers to pay for renewables such as solar panels and heat pumps through a monthly charge on their energy bill, rather than via a rebate or lump sum payment, with the goal of increasing access to green energy for lower-income people. 

Along with promoting renewables, some lawmakers are focused on taking on the fossil fuel industry. For example, Warren — who has argued that Maine’s last few budgets haven’t done enough to address the climate crisis — is introducing a bill titled “An Act Establishing Energy Cost Relief Through a Windfall Tax on Oil Company Profits.” 

A windfall tax is a levy on unexpected profits gained through no additional effort by companies. Oil companies in recent months have raked in record profits at the same time as many Americans’ energy costs have skyrocketed—all amid the increasingly clear reality that fossil fuels are the largest contributor to climate change

Advocates also have some environmental priorities this session that touch on other issues. For example, MCAN and Sierra Club Maine say they will continue to push for Wabanaki tribal sovereignty, an effort that many environmentalists believe will lead to better climate resiliency policies.   

Eshoo said MCAN will also advocate for policies to address Maine’s dire housing crisis, with the understanding that it’s “hard to engage folks on climate action if they aren’t secure in their shelter.” Furthermore, the group is still supporting the November 2023 referendum to create a consumer-owned utility to replace Central Maine Power and Versant, which proponents say will allow for a more cost-effective transition away from fossil fuels. 

Other priorities this legislative session, said Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland), chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, include continuing to address the dire impacts of PFAS chemicals on Maine farms, supporting the state’s bottle redemption program to keep waste out of landfills, and expanding farmland conservation efforts. 

Brenner said Maine has made significant progress on its climate and environmental goals over the past few sessions. Still, she acknowledged the need to continue such efforts. 

“We still have work to do,” she said. 

Meeting the moment

Advocates emphasized the importance of taking bold action on environmental measures this session, noting the ever-worsening climate crisis and the opportunity presented by Maine’s current political landscape in which Democrats control the legislature and the Blaine House. 

“We have to take advantage of this moment because the climate crisis is here and science tells us we have a really short window to address [it] and our political majorities are only certain until the next election,” Wright said. “So even though things are in our favor we still have a lot of work to do this session.” 

Eshoo added that it’s important for lawmakers to work on improving Maine’s current climate action plan — “Maine Won’t Wait,” unveiled by Gov. Janet Mills’ administration in 2020 — that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 and making the state carbon neutral by 2045.

“Maine Climate Action Now has really seen it as critical to transition to zero carbon emissions by 2030 and the cap is [currently] set at 2045 … so I think we are always going to ask for bolder, more systemic changes at a faster, more urgent pace,” she said. 

Cole Cochrane, a climate activist with Maine Youth Action who is focusing this session on measures such as the Pine Tree Amendment, expanding public transportation and reducing plastic pollution, agreed.

“The Maine Won’t Wait strategy was an effective starter and we have had a proactive government in this space. However, this does not mean that we accept this as our complete strategy,” he said. “Instead, we need to be advocating for further investment in sustainable practices like smart growth or public/clean transportation, or renewable sources of energy.”

To that end, activists will be closely watching the debate over this year’s budget, with the goal of ensuring significant climate-related funding. Mills, a Democrat, released her budget proposal earlier this month. The plan includes $10.3 billion in spending and sets aside $3 million to help Maine communities plan for climate change and $6 million to find and deal with the impacts of PFAS substances. 

Brenner said she is heartened to see money for climate programs in the budget and is particularly excited that the plan includes an allocation for the healthy soil program to help farmers use environmentally-friendly agriculture practices. 

But others, such as Beth Ahearn, director of government affairs for Maine Conservation Voters, called for more funding in the budget to address climate change.

“There’s lots of opportunity, particularly for towns, to have more climate resiliency money,” Ahearn said.

Sign up for Beacon newsletters

Our newsletter, sent each evening, curates the day's most important stories from newsrooms around Maine.