Maine's new Tea Party governor is drawing the ire of environmental groups and health advocates, who charge that his proposed set of 63 regulatory rollbacks would threaten the state's nature-based economy and hamper its bold climate change efforts.
"Maine has been a real leader when it comes to these issues … and [the proposals] would put us at the back end," Nathaniel Meyer, a field associate with Environment Maine, told SolveClimate News.
Gov. Paul LePage unveiled his list of proposed cutbacks on Jan. 21, after conducting a series of "red-tape" audits with businesses and chambers of commerce to single out government rules that could be holding back business development in Maine.
"Job creation and investment opportunities are being lost because we do not have a fair balance between our economic interests and the need to protect the environment," LePage said in a statement accompanying the proposals.
In a later speech on Jan. 26, he declared: "My message to the regulators in the state is that family-owned businesses, mid-size businesses and large businesses in the state of Maine are on the endangered species list; and that we must defend the private sector the same way that the environmentalists are protecting the tree frogs and Canadian lynx."
The actions by the newly elected Republican leader follow those of New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, also backed by the Tea Party, whose swift, post-election efforts to block rules requiring greenhouse gas curbs in that state were shot down last week by the State Supreme Court.
In Maine, the legislative Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, a bipartisan team of 15 legislators tasked with writing the LD 1 omnibus regulatory reform bill, is currently reviewing the proposals.
A press officer for LePage told SolveClimate News that the governor would not comment on the proposals, as they are still under review. The governor's office has tentatively scheduled a press conference this week to address opposition to his plan.
GHG Rules: 'No Room for a Backslide'
Opponents say that LePage's plans to take environmental regs off the books would reduce or reverse four decades' worth of 20 different laws to protect air and water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote wind energy development.
"Climate change is going to be a huge threat to Maine's identity and to maintaining a strong economy and man’s quality of life," Meyer said. "There is no room for a backslide because there is so much more work to be done."
Maine has excelled nationally in its efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, advocates say. In 2003, it became one of the first states to set into statute an emissions-reduction mandate, requiring an 80 percent cut from 2003 levels by 2050.
In 2005, under Gov. John Baldacci, Maine joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a mandatory U.S. cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide. Since the first RGGI auction in 2008, Maine's share to date is $23.5 million in carbon credit sales to power plants, the majority of which has funded more than a dozen state energy-efficiency programs.
Meyer said that LePage had previously expressed interest in removing Maine from RGGI, and that the governor's proposal to shut down the Board of Environmental Protection would make it harder to hold businesses and power plants accountable for violating federal and state regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution.
Wind Power, Forestry Goals at Risk
Sean Mahoney, the Maine advocacy center director for the regional Conservation Law Foundation, told SolveClimate News that LePage is also seeking to dismantle statutory and regulatory changes that provide incentives for renewable energy projects. The move could hinder Maine's wind power development goals of hosting between 2,000 and 3,000 megawatts of turbines by 2020, he said.
Renewables, mainly hydroelectric power, account for about 50 percent of Maine's electricity mix.
The proposals also suggest plans to significantly cut back bonds approved for the state-funded Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) Program, an office that helped to conserve more than a million acres of land. The program has implemented nearly 200 projects to protect mountain summits, salt marshes and coastal shorelines, as well as provide public access to the outdoors for hunting, fishing and camping.
LMF is also charged with protecting the North Woods, a 3.5-million acre forest in northwestern Maine that could open up for development under the governor's plan, which also calls for a rollback on regulations calling for smart planning to prevent urban sprawl.
Overdevelopment, Mahoney said, would eliminate part of the state's enormous forest carbon sink, a natural reservoir that sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus reduces greenhouse gas levels.
"We plan to work to first try and educate and the governor on why some of the proposals that he has made are wrong-footed, but if he would continue to pursue them, we will most likely be opposing those efforts," he said.
The list goes on and on, conservationists lament.
LePage's proposals would abolish the Board of Environmental Protection, a citizen board created by the legislature to enforce regulations and swapping Maine's environmental laws on air-emissions removal with less stringent federal standards.
The plan would also open up 30 percent — or three million acres — of Maine's unorganized land to development while overhauling regulations of the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Other suggestions include eliminating Maine's electronic waste recycling program, the first of its kind in the nation, and reversing the planned phase-out of Bisphenol-A (BPA) in children's products, such as baby bottles and cups. The proposals would lift a ban on using toxic flame retardants in furniture and would no longer require hospitals to grind used syringes before throwing them out, a measure meant to keep the devices from washing up in the state’s fishing and recreational waters.
'False Conflict' Between Environment and Economy
A coalition of 24 Maine environmental groups argue that protecting the state's landscapes and offshore waters is more economically sound than opening it to what they call rampant development.
They say that most of the environmental laws passed with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democrat legislators, signaling a statewide interest in conversation and environmental protection.
"A dirty environment is no way to bring new jobs to Maine," Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Voters Education Fund, told SolveClimate News.
She noted that the state's forest-based manufacturing, tourism and recreation bring $6.5 billion to Maine’s economy each year, while wildlife-related recreation contributes $1.5 billion and Maine's well-renowned lobster and clam industries bring $1 billion each year. Representatives from these industries spoke out at a Jan. 20 forum with more than 500 attendants to link the state economy to strong environmental regulations in a final effort to reach out to LePage before he issued the proposals.
Mahoney said: "[LePage] is trying to roll back four decades of environmental statutes and regulations that have allowed Maine to maintain its unique set of natural resources, as well as make use of them economically."
"The long-term health of the state's natural resources is inextricably tied up with the long-term health of the economy in Maine," he said. "[The governor] is trying to draw on the days where there was this false conflict between the environment and the economy. We thought we were over that."
Local press following the heated topic in Maine have reported that the state's business community is largely pleased with the proposals, which members say will make the state's regulatory climate more open for investment and development.
But other business leaders say they simply want a clearer explanation of the regulations and a speedy decisionmaking process on zoning and building permits — not a total overhaul of the rules themselves.
Image: Matt Gagnon