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Maine Approves Historic Law To Reduce Oil Use (Really!)

By Phineas Baxandall
Senior Analyst for Tax & Budget Policy

The politics of Maine's leadership has shifted dramatically in the past few years. The new Tea Party Governor and Republican-dominated legislature have made waves rolling back energy-efficiency rules, making it easier for insurance companies to raise premiums, and making it harder to register to vote.

But just in time for Independence Day, Maine has passed legislation putting the state at the cutting-edge for reducing America's unhealthy dependence on oil. This important tool can reduce global-warming pollution and encourage more efficient alternatives to driving.

The law, An Act to Improve Maine's Energy Security, is great news for energy independence. It sets ambitious goals for reducing economy-wide oil use in Maine: by at least 30 percent by 2030, and 50 percent by 2050. The law directs state agency reforms, including the Department of Transportation and housing authorities, to meet the goal. A state office will regularly issue updates on progress toward meeting oil reduction targets and recommend measures that could meet those goals. The office is directed to focus on near-term policies and infrastructure changes that set the state on a reasonable trajectory to meet the targets. This is good stuff.

"Thankfully, Maine has many tools that we can use to reduce our dependence on oil -- safeguarding not only our economy and our national security, but our environment as well," said Environment Maine Director Emily Figdor, who led the effort to pass the bill. "By getting the most out of every drop of oil we use through improved energy efficiency, shifting toward transportation systems that use less oil, and by substituting clean fuels for both heating and transportation, Maine can achieve a dramatic reduction in our use of oil."

Over time, the law's greatest impact is likely to be the indirect way it changes the political conversation. Nobody thinks Maine will suddenly transform into the land of clean cars, telecommuting and transit-oriented development. The law does not force future task forces to make good recommendations or the legislature to follow them.

But the new law creates leverage and a vital commitment. The Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security must develop a plan to achieve the targets and to submit that plan to the Legislature by December 1, 2012. This puts the governor and the legislature on record and in the spotlight to answer what they will do to relieve suffering residents from high price gasoline and heating oil.

And because the policy levers are firmly attached to state policy, the answer won't be "Drill, Baby Drill." There's almost nothing that even the most short-sighted governor or state legislator can do to divert questions of oil dependence toward temporarily increasing the supply of foreign or offshore oil.

Unlike climate change rules, which are too often ignored when the economy falters, pressure to do something about reducing oil consumption will rise when the economy falls. Nobody can dismiss the law as a liberal fantasy, since it was a bipartisan bill led largely by the Republican House Energy Chair and co-sponsored with Republicans in the Senate along with support of Governor LePage's Office of Energy Independence.

This approach to transforming energy use is well suited to the state level, but that doesn't mean Washington D.C. can't get in on the act. Maine's Senator Olympia Snowe has already joined with Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley to author federal legislation with the same approach. Their Energy Security Act of 2011 would establish a National Energy Security Council that would report directly to the President to establish specific targets and oversee and coordinate federal programs to reduce oil consumption.

If the current Maine legislature has found its way to pass such forward-looking reforms, they can happen anywhere. As state oil savings laws spread, it will set the stage to finally transform America's stubbornly dysfunctional federal transportation policy from the bottom up.

"As Maine goes,...."

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