Greg Kesich’s Feb. 11 column, “The costs of political division,” alludes to the regional climate collaboration policy debate as merely another example of divisive politics. Yet the debate over Maine’s latest regional climate collaboration should not be dismissed as simply politics.

The collaboration’s policy implications merit discussion: It would raise transportation fuel prices, disproportionately affecting rural Mainers and the working poor.

Kesich begins by referring to interstate collaboration and a regional climate initiative to reduce power-sector greenhouse gas emissions, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which Maine joined in 2005.

He asks, “Could the same bill pass today? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy. The Maine Republican Party is good for an email blast about anything the Democrats do, so it’s not hard to imagine their reaction to a ’tax-and-spend’ approach to achieving their ‘radical climate-change agenda.’ ”

What Kesich does not say: Maine is negotiating a new regional climate-change proposal that differs greatly from RGGI; it raises the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel by up to 17 cents a gallon; and the Mills administration could implement it without a bill in the Legislature.

What is this “radical-climate-change,” “tax-and-spend” proposal? The Transportation and Climate Initiative.

New Hampshire has already pulled out of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, initially a regional collaboration of 12 Northeastern states. The initiative is being debated vigorously in Vermont and Massachusetts, not so much in Maine – but it should be.

The Transportation and Climate Initiative will impose new fees on gas and diesel though an emissions-permit auction to limit the transportation fuel sold annually in participating states. The agreement requires a state to spend the millions of dollars raised in fees “to strategically invest in programs to help their residents transition to affordable, low-carbon transportation options that provide substantial public health benefits, reduce congestion, and increase economic and job opportunities.”

The total amount of fuel sold per state would drop each year, reducing carbon emissions. But TCI counts – and touts – both reductions in driving and benefits to public health only achievable by passing the permit fees to consumers at the pump, up to 17 cents a gallon. Higher gas prices, the states hope, will encourage people to drive less or switch to greener transportation methods.

Many Mainers cannot afford or access these options. The Transportation and Climate Initiative disproportionately burdens residents without public transportation or who cannot afford electric vehicles.

The initiative is regressive, penalizing individuals who live in rural areas, commuters and those whose businesses rely on trucking. These effects deserve debate.

So does the likelihood that Gov. Mills could adopt the Transportation and Climate Initiative though rulemaking. The Boston Globe reported, “Conservation Law Foundation attorney Staci Rubin says her group’s legal analysis shows Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut likely do not need legislative approval, while the other states potentially will.” We believe Maine’s Legislature should vote on joining the TCI.

In this discussion, comparing the Transportation and Climate Initiative to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is misleading: They differ in mechanism and intended audience. Jeffrey Wennberg, environmental conservation commissioner and lead negotiator for the original RGGI under Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, managed state, regional and national studies of cap-and-trade proposals for the Center for Climate Strategies in Washington, D.C.

He wrote in the Rutland Herald, “Applying cap-and-trade to the transportation sector is like using a hammer to turn a screw.” He argues this policy makes sense only when the program’s participants are limited, make the decisions affecting emissions and are “sophisticated players with significant technical, legal and financial resources.”

Wennberg contends that the RGGI’s participants meet these conditions, whereas the TCI’s do not. Fuel distributors do not make the decisions affecting transportation emissions – consumers do.

He concludes, “If customers are willing to pay 5 cents more at the pump, the fuel suppliers will happily pass that cost along and change nothing. … As a result, TCI is nothing more than an inefficient, bureaucratic, hopelessly complicated way to increase revenue from transportation fuels.”

No matter one’s views about climate change, this policy to raise the cost of gasoline for Maine’s rural residents and working poor is worthy of debate. The public may comment on the Transportation and Climate Initiative proposal until Feb. 28 through its website.

 


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