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Governor pushes climate change fight but holds off on supporting carbon tax

Gov. Janet Mills said she is making sure Maine is engaged with the rest of New England and the country in fighting climate change -- but she is not ready to support a carbon tax plan.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills says Maine needs to get serious about cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change. 

Mills delivered a climate speech Thursday morning to E2Tech, a group that holds forums on energy and environmental issues. The Governor said she is making sure Maine is engaged with the rest of New England and the country in fighting climate change, since she says the state is already feeling the impact of a warmer climate.

"Black capped chickadees are fleeing north. Five times more lobsters with shell disease were found between 2000 and 2012. 92 species of wildflowers, including asters and lilies, and 16 percent of native trees, including fir trees, were already disappearing by 2015," said Mills. 

As she did in her January inaugural address, Mills said it's time to stop listening to climate change deniers and take action.

"Maine is now the 22nd member of the U.S. Climate Alliance. While the federal government ignores its responsibilities, Maine will work with states across the country to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accords." 

Debate over a particular climate proposal, however, shows how challenging tough action may be. Rep. Deane Rykerson (D-Kittery) is sponsoring a bill to impose a carbon tax -- which he calls a fee -- on fossil fuels used for transportation and heating. Rykerson says the goal of the fee would be to push more Mainers to reduce fuel consumption and switch to electric vehicles or other forms of heating. 

"It’s getting worse," Rykerson said, referring to climate change, "and will get more and more expensive every year that we are producing carbon. So this bill is an attempt to start to reduce that carbon so we have alternatives -- less expensive and more beneficial."

Rykerson’s proposal includes a fee that he says translates to starting at four cents per gallon and increases to 32 cents per gallon over eight years. He says the money would eventually be turned back to consumers through energy subsidies. 

Jamie Py, CEO of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, disagrees, saying the carbon tax would increase costs for fuel by about $65 million the first year and eventually increase to $600 million annually.

"I think this is the wrong approach," said Py. "It hurts people the most and makes everything they buy and sell more expensive, especially compared to New Hampshire." 

Py argues that the carbon fee or tax would not have much impact on Maine’s carbon dioxide emissions or on climate change. He did say Maine could see more improvement by switching from petroleum heating oil to biofuel made from wood, which he says is now being tested by one of the state’s major fuel companies. 

Rykerson’s bill has a large number of cosponsors in the Legislature, which he says indicates how strongly lawmakers feel about taking some action against climate change.

Mills, however, told reporters she is not yet ready to support the plan, saying she has not read the bill yet.

"No other state has done it. Washington state rejected it at the ballot box," Mills said. "See what impact that specific idea has on the fossil fuel industry as opposed to the local dealers and consumers -- would be my perspective on it."

At Thursday’s Energy and Technology Committee hearing, about 46 people signed up to speak against the carbon tax bill, while only three to four signed up to speak about it in support.