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Maine environmental board rejects controversial EV rules

Electric vehicle chargers in Bangor on April 12, 2023.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Electric vehicle chargers in Bangor on April 12, 2023.

Maine's Board of Environmental Protection voted Wednesday not to move forward with controversial rules aimed at increasing sales of electric vehicles in the state.

Instead, the issue may now end up in the hands of the Legislature — if it's considered at all.

The proposal would have added Maine to the growing list of states — led by California — that are using government regulations as a way to push car makers into selling more zero-emissions vehicles.

Just 7 percent of sales of new cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and other light-duty vehicles sold in Maine last year were electric. Under the rules considered by the Board of Environmental Protection, zero-emissions vehicles would have to account for 51% of sales by the 2028 model year and 82% of sales by 2032. The rules would not have applied to sales of used cars and supporters pointed out that — contrary to arguments from opponents — it would not force anyone to purchase an electric vehicle.

The board was required to consider the issue after receiving a rulemaking petition submitted last May by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and more than 150 state residents.

"This is a really important consumer choice policy for Maine. The electric vehicle transition is happening," said Jack Shapiro, climate and clean energy director for NRCM.

Speaking to the board at the Augusta Civic Center, Shapiro acknowledged that there is a lot of "messiness" in the industry right now as manufacturers make that transition. But he and other supporters said that adopting California standards is critical to achieving Maine's ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Those targets require Maine to reduce emissions 45% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

"We urge you to adopt this really important standard for climate, for health, for consumer savings as soon as you can," Shapiro said.

But NRCM's proposal has proven immensely controversial. The board received more than 2,000 comments from the public. Many people raised concerns about the costs of electric vehicles and the availability of charging stations, particularly in rural Maine.

Others raised doubts about the capacity of Maine's electric grid to supply all of the additional power to charge EVs. And then there is the whole issue of "range anxiety" expressed by consumers, especially during the winter months when batteries don't last as long.

The issue has also taken on major political overtones as Republicans use the issue to target Democratic officials, even though many of the state's Democratic leaders have distanced themselves from or criticized the proposal.

Board member Bob Marvinney, who was formerly Maine's state geologist, said he believes society is still a long way from definitively showing that electric vehicles will have a smaller impact over their lifetime because of the mining operations and other resources that go into building them.

"I just never liked the terms 'clean energy' and 'clean cars' because every source of energy has its impacts and it's environmental concerns," Marvinney said. "And every vehicle does. So we are shifting from one type of impact to another."

Ultimately, the board voted 4-2 to stop the rulemaking process.

Several board members, including chair Sue Lessard, said regulatory issues of this magnitude are better handled by the Legislature. And even as the board was debating the rules, a legislative committee was holding a public hearing about four miles away at the State House on a bill that would so just that: require the Legislature to approve any changes to Maine's motor vehicle emissions standards.

 Lessard said there are too many "ifs" in her eyes about things like Maine's charging infrastructure, the electric grid and costs to consumers. She also pointed out that the government and private sector continued investing in Maine's EV infrastructure even after the board declined to move forward with a similar process for trucks in 2021.

"Whether the board votes to adopt this or not, the Legislature will have final say on it," Lessard said. "And based on the level of interest and the level of input. I'm not sure that that's wrong. I'm not sure that we are, given the magnitude of this decision, the right decision-makers."

The board's vote to drop the rulemaking process also came on the same day that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new federal rules that aim to ensure that half of the new vehicles sold in U.S. by 2032 meet zero-emissions standards.

Those rules will likely be challenged in court, however, and could be scuttled if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House next year.