Electric vehicle standards force a new political debate in Maine

August 23, 2023

by Michael Shepherd August 15, 2023

Environmental groups are forcing the administration of Gov. Janet Mills to consider a rule change looking to drive long-term electric vehicle adoption here, leading Republicans to mobilize against the change.

This comes ahead of a Thursday public hearing on the ideas. It is likely to have all the features of most energy other debates: tension between the short-term costs and long-term benefits at a time of high energy prices and stalled progress toward electric vehicle adoption.

The context: Maine sat at a paltry 4 percent of its 2030 goal last year. It is hard to evaluate what will happen in 10 years by today’s standards, though. There are differing estimates that say electric vehicles could make up between 30 percent and 50 percent of new sales by 2030.

With many in the industry targeting all-electric sales by the middle of the next decade, the market is likely pushing us in this direction faster than it may seem. That is where the state rule changes proposed by groups including the Natural Resources Council of Maine come in.

The two changes, put forward under a little-known process that allows 150 people to petition the Board of Environmental Protection, would address passenger vehicles and large trucks, respectively. That first change would phase in new standards in 2027 that would ramp up to requiring 82 percent of new light-duty sales to be zero-emission vehicles. The second would similarly phase in sales of electric trucks.

What they’re saying: Proponents have said Maine risks falling behind other states on adoption if these rules are not adopted. The administration of Mills, a Democrat, has been skeptical of mandates on the topic, with her spokesperson saying she favors incentives but “would not be inclined to adopt any mandate along those lines.”

Conservative opponents, including the Maine Republican Party and the Maine Policy Institute, have focused heavily on Mills’ role in the debate in their messaging on the rules.

Legislative Republicans are expected to be at the Thursday hearing in Augusta, and one of the most outspoken opponents so far has Rep. Austin Theriault, R-Fort Kent, a former NASCAR driver who told WVOM that the changes were not based in “reality.”

“We’re not there yet, so I think we have to be very cautious and methodical about this,” he said.

What’s next: The board, which was appointed by the governor, will decide whether the rules will be adopted. There have been few hints from staff at the environmental protection department on the rules so far, other than in fact sheets on the proposals that suggest long-term cost savings as a result of the shift.

Maine is at a crossroads on electric generation projects that will determine how quickly the region can turn from fossil fuels. A proposed wind transmission line is facing criticism that resembles early debate over the Central Maine Power Co. corridor, and the state will vote in November on a utility takeover that includes a mandate for more charging infrastructure.

This means talk of electric vehicles is about more than Teslas and Volts themselves. It’s about our electricity future and our need for more power if we’re going to transition away from gas for transportation and heating.