One year ago, as the pandemic surged through Maine, the state released its long-awaited plan to prepare for the effects of the changing climate and to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ greenhouse gas reduction goals.

To mark the anniversary, Mills on Wednesday announced new initiatives designed to encourage towns and cities to undertake local projects to help meet the goals in the plan, which aims to put the state on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2050, and have no net carbon dioxide emissions by 2045. The new measures provide grants and technical support to local governments as they create and implement their own climate plans, upgrade water infrastructure to deal with increased storms and flooding, and improve the efficiency of buildings and vehicles.

“The climate crisis – a code red for humanity – is disrupting our cherished way of life, threatening our economy, and endangering our future,” Mills said at a news conference at the University of Maine in Orono to roll out the initiatives. “With the very future of our state and its people at stake, Maine is not waiting to act.”

“With our climate action plan as our guide, we will combat this crisis and protect our people and their communities from its harmful impacts,” Mills added. “We owe no less to future generations so that they may live in a Maine that is as beautiful and bountiful as it is today.”

Maine’s four-year climate plan, Maine Won’t Wait, has won accolades from environmentalists and climate experts for its comprehensive sweep, addressing everything from the changes that will have to be made in how we power our vehicles, and heat our homes to initiatives that aim to put Maine at the forefront of climate-related industries like the manufacture of offshore wind turbines, including training the requisite workforce.

The biggest question mark had always been how to fund the strategy, but the landscape has changed dramatically since the plan was being written in the fall of 2020 with the passage of the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan by the now Democratic-controlled Congress, which soon may pass a $2 trillion social policy and climate change investment package called Build Back Better.

“We have a lot of heavy lifting to do to help communities plan for infrastructure changes that would help make them more resilient, but we didn’t know how we would have the resources to implement the plans,” noted Hannah Pingree, who heads the entity charged with coordinating the climate plan, the governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. “Now we have these federal dollars available that go to things that are needed to make the climate plan a reality.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is Hannah’s mother, said the three bills together contain extensive resources that can be tapped for everything from culvert and bridge upgrades to workforce training, forest conservation, home winterization and the building of electric vehicle charging stations, and that Maine is in an enviable position to tap on them. 

“Maine was very wise to move ahead with the planning not knowing what the political landscape would be and not knowing what federal funding would be,” said Pingree, a Democrat who represents the state’s 1st Congressional District. “Maine is in a good position to be at the front of the line in terms of being able to apply for federal grant funding or to use the funds provided to the state because it has already worked through this plan developed with stakeholder groups from all segments of the economy and from our communities and so they really know where they want to target their spending.”

PROGRESS REPORT

A progress report released Wednesday by the Maine Climate Council – the government convened stakeholder group that developed the plan and which is co-chaired by Hannah Pingree and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim – details billions of dollars of funding for the four-year plan that originated with either the COVID rescue or infrastructure bills.

The infrastructure bill – passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but on largely party lines in the House – has provided $234 million for improved public transport in Maine, $19 million to build new charging stations, $100 million to expand broadband to rural areas (potentially reducing commuting and associated pollution), an estimated $36.9 million for low-income Mainers to weatherize their homes, and almost $2 billion for upgrades and replacements of roads, bridges, and water and sewer plants, many of which are necessitated by climate change impacts.

COVID rescue funds will underwrite hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the development of climate-friendly building materials by Maine’s forest products sector, the construction of affordable, energy-efficient housing, and further investments in broadband, electric vehicles, and grants for local and tribal government’s climate initiatives, according to details of the update.

At Wednesday’s news conference in Orono, Mills announced the $4.75 million Community Resilience Partnership, which will provide grants and technical assistance to municipal and tribal governments to develop climate plans and execute them on their own, with applications open in January.

Mills also unveiled the $20 million Maine Infrastructure Adaptation Fund, which will provide more grants to tribal and local governments to improve water infrastructure. It will be administered by the Department of Transportation, which expects to start taking grant applications next spring.

“Our goal is to work in partnership with local communities and tribes to get this money where it’s needed as quickly and efficiently as possible. These timely investments will support public safety, protect our natural resources and enhance our quality of life,” Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said in a written statement released for the news conference.

The Mills administration touted the progress made in meeting the climate plan’s goals for the first year, detailed in over 20 pages of the climate council’s progress report. These included an increase of nearly 2,000 electric vehicle registrations in the state in the first six months of this year (there were less than 3,000 on the road at the end of 2019); 2,043 homes winterized thus far in 2021 (leaving 15,457 by 2025 to meet the plan’s goals); and the passage of a variety of laws requiring climate-related interests to be integrated into the state’s policies.

PRAISE AND CONCERN

Conservationists and climate change activists expressed broad satisfaction with the state’s plan in its first year of implementation, though some argued the climate crisis has become so acute the timeline should be rapidly accelerated.

“We are very excited by what Maine is doing and what the administration and the Legislature has done and is doing and we are very pleased with some of the outcomes,” said Amy Eshoo, program director for the grassroots climate change group 350 Maine. “But we’re calling for Maine to go to completely renewable energy by 2030 because we’re hearing the urgency of youth on this.”

Eshoo noted her group is especially concerned that the necessary changes to the power grid that need to be made to accommodate renewable energy producers, charging stations and other innovations are not being implemented by Central Maine Power or Versant, the state’s private utilities. It supported creating a public utility instead – an initiative passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Mills – and opposed CMP’s clean energy corridor as a distraction that would not advance climate goals.

Ania Wright, the youth representative to the Maine Climate Council, said the state had made great strides this year toward meeting the climate plan.

“As a young person who recognizes that solving the climate crisis is critical to future generations’ health and wellbeing, this is encouraging,” she said in an email. But she added that she had just attended the recent U.N. Climate Conference in Scotland, and global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were inadequate to prevent destabilizing life on the planet.

“The state of Maine has a responsibility to continue to lead the nation in climate action, and to set an example for what is possible,” Wright said.

Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, noted the sea change in attitudes and priorities surrounding the Maine Won’t Wait plan compared to earlier climate change plans such as a plan released exactly 16 years ago – on Dec.1, 2004 – during the administration of the previous Democratic governor, John Baldacci. 

“This plan isn’t sitting on a shelf gathering dust, there’s real momentum and life to it which I haven’t seen in that many government reports on any topic,” Didisheim said. “The context is so much different than before and the urgency off the climate crisis is so much more evident that it has compelled more people to consider more seriously what needs to go into a plan and what needs to be done to implement it.”

“The leadership of this administration is hugely important and is the secret sauce as to why this plan is succeeding,” he added.

Kathleen Meil, policy director at Maine Conservation Voters, said the fact that the governor didn’t put the plan on hold during the ongoing global pandemic shows how committed she is to taking serious action. “It is really such a testament to Gov. Mill’s climate leadership that she insisted we will walk and chew gum to address the pandemic and the climate crisis and do it well,” she said.


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