AUGUSTA — Maine environmental regulators heard hours of testimony Tuesday on a citizen-initiated proposal that would require the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent annually while imposing new regulations on the trucking and biomass industries.

Tapping a little-used section of state law, a grassroots group of attorneys and activists submitted nearly 700 petition signatures from registered voters calling for tougher standards on emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-warming gases. As a result, the Department of Environmental Protection is required to begin rulemaking on a proposal that supporters – including roughly a dozen middle and high school students – contend is necessary to reduce emissions that threaten Maine’s lobster and shellfish fisheries, seaside towns and public health.

“We know that this issue is real and that this is going to be one of the biggest issues that we face as a generation,” said Ryan O’Leary, a Scarborough High School junior who was one of roughly a dozen students to speak Tuesday. “We are doing all that we can right now to combat it, but, at the same time, we realize that in order to truly preserve our beloved state for years to come … we need bold support and direct action from the DEP.”

Some business groups, however, decried the proposal as an unrealistic over-regulation that would make Maine even less competitive than other states.

“This whole concept is impossible to do and, if implemented, would shut down all large manufacturing in Maine,” warned Jim Robbins of Robbins Lumber Inc. in Searsmont. “Those jobs would then be exported to China, which is the worst-polluting country in the world.”

The rulemaking petition filed with the DEP in January would set a new, statewide carbon dioxide emissions limit of 17.55 million metric tons starting in 2021. Using that figure as a baseline, the proposal calls for the state to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 8 percent every year through 2035, achieving a 75 percent to 80 percent reduction in emissions over 2003 levels.

The proposed rules also would require businesses that emit 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually – as well as trucking fleets that generate 5,000 tons of the gas annually – to file plans detailing how they will reduce emissions by 8 percent each year. In addition, the rules would impose limits on emissions of sulfur hexafluoride, an electrical insulator that is thousands of times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

WARNINGS OF DAMAGING REGULATORY BURDEN

A group of attorneys from 350 Maine, Our Children’s Trust, Citizens Climate Lobby and the Conservation Law Foundation, as well as a half-dozen or so other activists, submitted the rulemaking petition in January after collecting 696 valid signatures from registered voters. One of those attorneys, Beth Fuller Valentine of Gorham, said the petition builds on a first-in-the-nation law passed in 2003 that set short-term and long-term goals for reducing emissions in Maine.

“Maine met the short-term goal through 2010 and is on track to meet the goal through 2020,” Valentine said. “But we are here today because Maine’s efforts to date are simply not sufficient to meet the long-term goal, which directs Maine to reduce emissions ‘sufficient to eliminate any dangerous threat to the climate.’ ”

But attorneys for large manufacturers and the Maine Forest Products Council – an industry trade group representing mills, forestland owners and logging truck operators – said Maine already is helping lead the national efforts to reduce emissions of climate-warming gases. They pointed to the 2003 law and Maine’s participation in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nation’s first cap-and-trade system that aims to reduce emissions from fuel-burning power plants.

If the DEP were to approve the rules, opponents warned, it would place unrealistic expectations and regulatory burdens on manufacturers, biomass plants and trucking companies, as well as some hospitals and colleges.

“It’s not that we are opposed to reducing (greenhouse gas) emissions, instead we are opposed to these proposals because they are simply impractical,” said Lisa Gilbreath, an attorney representing unnamed large manufacturers in Maine. “We’re not aware of any such requirements in other states. But we need to remain competitive, and these proposals would put Maine manufacturers at a big disadvantage.”

SCIENTISTS, FISHERMEN CALL FOR URGENT ACTION

Maine law allows residents to petition any department to commence rulemaking on a specific issue. Agencies have 60 days to initiate the rulemaking process after receiving a request from at least 150 registered voters. But the law does not necessarily require departments to adopt the rules, and the administration of outgoing Gov. Paul LePage – a Republican who was elected eight years ago partly on a pledge to roll back environmental red tape – is unlikely to go along with environmental regulations opposed by major segments of Maine’s business industry.

Yet scientists and fishermen told DEP representatives Tuesday that Maine can longer afford to delay taking more decisive action on climate-warming emissions.

University of Maine soil scientist Ivan Fernandez said he had not studied the details of the proposed emissions standards, but agreed with the push to further reduce emissions levels. A faculty member with UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, Fernandez said Maine farmers are experiencing more droughts, Lyme disease is spreading rapidly as the climate warms and fishermen are facing increasingly acidic waters as the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide from the air.

“If the only concern from rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were ocean acidification, we would still have a burgeoning global crisis with Maine on the front lines,” Fernandez said.

OCEAN ACIDIFICATION, THREAT TO LOBSTERING

Richard Nelson, a retired lobsterman from Friendship, said fishermen are seeing the effects of climate change on a daily basis. Fish that used to be plentiful off Maine’s coast are moving farther north as the Gulf of Maine warms – a trend that Nelson said threatens the viability of Maine’s iconic lobster industry. Ocean acidification also could affect the ability of lobster and other organisms to form shells.

“All evidence suggests that any measure that would reduce the fossil fuels along with CO2 emissions would also limit the detrimental effects of climate change and ocean acidification that threaten our industry,” said Nelson, who served on an ocean acidification task force created by the state Legislature.

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

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Correction: This story was revised at 7:52 a.m., May 16, 2018, to reflect that Robbins Lumber Inc. is located in Searsmont. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location.