The Maine State Capitol Building in Augusta.
The Maine Statehouse in Augusta. Credit: Ken Lund / Creative Commons

Maine utility regulators will be able to consider the state’s long-term climate goals in their decision-making under a proposal headed to the governor’s desk.

The legislation represents a major expansion in the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s mission, which until now has focused primarily on ensuring energy reliability and affordability.

The bill also requires state officials to define “environmental justice populations,” “frontline communities,” and related terms so they might also be added as decision-making criteria later.

The wider scope is expected to improve the case for investing in newer technologies, such as heat pumps or electric vehicles, which the state is counting on to meet its climate goals — but which also come with significant upfront costs. Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation in 2019 calling on the state to decrease emissions by 45% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

Originally, the bill would have required utility regulators to consider equity and environmental justice in their decisions. The measure was dropped in recent weeks after testimony revealed a lack of clarity over definitions that some worried could make the commission’s decisions more vulnerable to lawsuits.

“The equity piece is still in there; it’s just in a different form,” bill sponsor Rep. Victoria Doudera said. The original equity component is a “noble goal,” she said. “But what we realized in the public hearing was that the definitions … really require a lot of study and careful thought.”

While the idea of broadening regulators’ decision-making criteria is still new in many states, “we think as we move more toward electrification and decarbonization, any PUC in any state will need to consider climate and equity in whatever decisions that they make,” said Jeff Marks, who directs policy in Maine for Acadia Center. Massachusetts’ recent climate law expands utility commissioners’ scope there to include both climate and equity considerations.

Adding two considerations to the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s mandating statute wouldn’t be technically difficult to do, Marks said. But while Maine’s emissions goals have been defined by statute, equity is harder to quantify. 

“We need to make sure we get the definitions on equity and environmental justice right so that the PUC can incorporate these into their decisions and also prevent litigation or pushback,” he said.

This concern was raised in testimony by state officials, prompting lawmakers on the House Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology to bring the amendment to change the equity component of the bill.

The approved bill requires the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future to “develop methods of incorporating equity considerations in decision making at the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Utilities Commission and other state agencies.”

Additionally, it requires the office to define “environmental justice,” “environmental justice populations,” “frontline communities,” “and any other terms determined by the office to be necessary for the incorporation of equity considerations in decision making at the department, the commission and other state agencies.” This process will result in a report that state officials submit to lawmakers by next February, which could lead to new legislation.

The language in the original bill was broad and “seemed to be putting us into the role of making some of those policy development decisions that would be more traditionally made by others,” said Public Utilities Commission Chair Phil Bartlett, who noted that the Legislature usually takes the lead on defining the criteria by which the commission makes its decisions. While the commission testifies neutrally on legislation, he said the amendment to the bill addressed regulators’ concerns.

“I’m certainly disappointed that they took out the requirement to include equity in PUC decision-making in the bill,” said Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “but I also think that the alternative that they set up … is a positive development.” 

Clemmer testified in support of the original legislation. He said that Maine can draw on experiences from other states as it works to define and evaluate environmental justice. California’s CalEnviroScreen tool helps policymakers identify communities that are particularly affected by pollution, producing scores for each census tract in the state based on environmental, health and socioeconomic information.

Clemmer also noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has its own tool, EJSCREEN, which the agency says it uses “to screen for areas that may be candidates for additional consideration, analysis or outreach as EPA develops programs, policies and activities that may affect communities.”

Several communities in Maine could benefit from utility regulators considering equity, Clemmer said. Areas including Aroostook County in the north, Portland in the south, and tribal and island communities have varying income levels and underrepresented populations.

“I think it’s still a really good bill,” he said, noting that the emissions component will strengthen the utilities commission’s work. He added that the final report on equity next February will open up the opportunity for legislation covering more state agencies. 

The legislation was supported by the Governor’s Energy Office. Marks, at Acadia Center, said advocates worked with the governor’s office on the legislation and are fairly certain Gov. Mills will sign it.

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.