Friday, March 27, 2009

Climate proposals feel a bit of a chill

State House: The recession and a split vote on a minor bill raise fears that global warming policies may stall.

March 23, 2009
Maine's Legislature will soon take up some landmark proposals to combat climate change, starting with a public hearing Tuesday.

If the bills pass, developers could face new anti-sprawl limits on construction in rural areas and fees for the right to cut down trees. Passage also would ensure that Maine's Legislature remains one of the most aggressive in the nation when it comes to addressing climate change.

The bills, coming in the midst of a deep recession, are sure to test the state's commitment to the issue. And a preliminary vote last week suggests lawmakers may be losing their appetite for new climate policies.

The Legislature's Natural Resources Committee surprised observers when it supported the creation of a new climate-change planning group in an 8-5 vote that split along party lines. Democrats voted for it, and Republicans against.

This legislation was supposed to be the easy one.

"We didn't think that was a controversial bill," said David Littell, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. "It's frankly a bad foreboding for how things might go this session."

The split vote creates a measure of doubt about the bill's fate and will at least delay the group's initial meeting. If global warming becomes a partisan issue in Augusta, some advocates fear, the more ambitious efforts to slow global warming could be in trouble.

"I didn't see it (climate change) as a partisan issue here," said Sen. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn, sponsor of the bill.

In past years, the committee has generally given bipartisan support to climate legislation, including participation in the nation's first carbon dioxide cap-and-trade system.

And, Simpson said, her bill didn't ask lawmakers to take a stand on what is causing warming or how to stop it, only to plan for it so that roads, for example, aren't washed away by coastal flooding as sea levels rise.

"We need to make some kind of long-term strategy," Simpson said. "That (vote) was weird. There was nobody that opposed it. It doesn't cost any money."

Sen. Doug Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, who sits on the Natural Resources Committee and voted against the bill, said he agrees that planning makes sense.

"The substance of what they were proposing to do was not of great concern, but there were some procedural aspects that were of concern," he said. "There's a concern on the part of many people that when the Legislature (creates) a stakeholder group that it's buying into the underlying idea behind the stakeholder group."

Smith said the vote was not a sign of a new partisan split on climate change or a decision by Republicans to oppose climate legislation in general. But he also said Republicans are generally more reluctant to take big regulatory steps, given the costs and remaining questions about the science.

Although there is no doubt climate change is happening, "there are those who are not entirely convinced that human activity is entirely at fault in creating current climate change," Smith said.

"Everybody in the Legislature realizes that there is a certain state commitment to do what is reasonable to deal with climate change and to be prepared for climate change," he said. "But I think there are questions beyond that about how much cost should we build into the economy."

Ray Sirois, a Republican climate-change activist from Harrison, said the vote on a planning study was disappointing.

"This is not the kind of thing that's healthy for Republicans to be opposing, in my opinion," he said. "The fact of the matter is that even in the most optimistic scenarios, we're looking at damage to our infrastructure.
"This is not something that should be a partisan issue. It's an issue that's affecting all species, Republicans and Democrats."

Simpson's resolve to create the planning group could reach the floor of the Legislature this week. Because of the split committee vote, it is now likely to undergo some floor debate. Although it is still expected to pass, the doubt created by the split vote caused the DEP to postpone an organizational meeting of the new group from April to May.

In the meantime, at least three more controversial proposals related to climate change are taking shape in the State House. The first of those bills will be presented to the Natural Resources Committee at a public hearing Tuesday at the State House.

It would make Maine one of the first states to take into account greenhouse-gas emissions when issuing state permits for large development projects. Massachusetts has a similar policy, and California requires municipal governments to consider global-warming impacts as part of their land-use planning.

The proposed Maine law would go a step further, authorizing the state to charge greenhouse-gas compensation on large developments. A developer who cuts down an acre of forest, for example, could be required to pay a corresponding fee that would be used to promote energy efficiency.

A similar, but broader, proposal being drafted by conservation groups would also require the state to consider climate-change impacts in other laws and planning activities.

A third bill related to climate change – and clearly one of the most controversial proposals – could require state-permitted development projects covering 20 acres or more to be located within locally designated growth areas or where there already are sewers.

The proposal, which also has yet to be finalized and printed, is intended to slow sprawl, which contributes to global warming by encouraging the cutting of trees and increasing car travel, among other things.

Smith, the Republican senator, said he already has been hearing a lot of opposition to the anti-sprawl bill.

And although Republicans aren't necessarily opposed to climate-change legislation, there is a lot of concern about new regulation, especially in light of the poor economy, he said.

Chris Jackson, a lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the business community shares the Republicans' concern about adding regulation, especially now.

"You want to be mindful of the fact that the economy is struggling out there, and if we don't have to put up unnecessary hurdles that employers have to clear, I think we should avoid those," he said.

The chamber didn't take a position on the climate-change planning group, which would include business representatives as members. Jackson said time will tell if the vote is a sign of a new partisan split on global warming.

"It's early yet," he said, "and the most contentious issues haven't really been dealt with."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

Copyright © 2009 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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