Energy politics is the new way to save the environment. The Public Utilities Commission is the new frontier

A man sits behind a building on Commercial Street in Portland. Buildings in Portland’s low-lying Commercial Street area could sustain nearly $33 million in damage by 2050 because of steady sea level rise. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

A man sits behind a building on Commercial Street in Portland. Buildings in Portland’s low-lying Commercial Street area could sustain nearly $33 million in damage by 2050 because of steady sea level rise. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change released a series of reports on the state of the world’s changing climate. Perhaps the most notable thrust of these reports, which were compiled from more than 9,200 studies reviewed and debated by 831 lead authors and editors, was the effort to move beyond the nearly two-decade-long debate over whether climate change is occurring (and, if so, whether humans are responsible) to what are we going to do about the accepted fact that the climate is changing.

The facts are simple and stark: global warming is occurring, but its effects are different in different areas — part of the reason that people accurately insist that certain parts of the globe — central Antarctica, for example — can be cooling even though the global average temperature is increasing. Even the news media seem to have caught on that “global warming” is a less accurate term than “climate change” when describing what is happening to our environment in any given place at any time.

In thinking about how to respond to the simple fact of climate change, it is important to recognize that the answer for drought-stricken California farmers is going to be different than the answer for homeowners in Tornado Alley in the Midwest, which is different from what fire-threatened communities in the hills of Los Angeles and the beetle-ravaged forested communities in the mountains of Colorado might do. So in keeping with the IPCC’s emphasis of turning our attention to how we are going to live in world of a rapidly changing climate, let’s concentrate on how we in Maine need to respond.

I am sorry to report that changing our light bulbs to energy-efficient CFC or LED bulbs is not going to make any real difference to our climate. Nor does joisting with ideological warriors in Congress make sense. Bill McKibben’s tilting at the Keystone Pipeline might be important political theater and might emphasize the undeniable point that some of the “proven” fossil fuel reserves will absolutely remain in the ground, but is somewhat beside the point because the Canadian government seems hell-bent on shipping its tar sands to other markets if it cannot get them to the Gulf Coast.

It appears that the real opportunities for confronting the reality of climate change today are local — at the

community and state levels. The IPCC points out that that 59 percent of U.S. cities have reported pursuing climate adaptation planning, and 13 percent reported having already completed climate vulnerability and risk assessment studies.

At the community level here in Maine, a group of architects in Portland last fall presented a study of the $33 million in damage that will be done to buildings along Portland’s low-lying Commercial Street area by 2050 because of steady sea level rise. You might ask what your community is doing to assess the risk to important town infrastructure — sewage treatment plants, roads, power stations and the like.

Notwithstanding the importance of community activism, the most important climate change decisions that Maine citizens can influence rests on state-level decisions about our energy mix. The biggest challenge with energy decisions is that the choices we make today will be with us for at least the next 25 years — if not the next 50. That is because the systems we build to generate and distribute energy require large upfront costs that are financed by long-term contracts.

According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine’s heating needs consume about two-thirds of all residential energy we use on an annual basis. We need to reach a broad-based agreement on the best way to “decarbonize” our winter heating. There is no silver bullet — renewables are a key part of the solution, but so is big hydro (from Quebec, which is not classified differently under renewable portfolio standards that utilities by law must meet) along with a judicious amount of natural gas to replace more carbon-intensive home heating oil.

For most of us accustomed to thinking of saving the environment as conserving some important piece of land or species of wildlife, energy decisions can seem like an arcane new battleground. What is worse is that energy decisions for us are largely made at the level of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, where operating procedures may be the least citizen-friendly venues of any state level bureaucracy.

But make no mistake, Maine’s PUC, historically influenced by a small number of politicians and lobbyists, is the new frontier for climate change politics. We all need to know more about it and how its members make decisions for us — and our climate future.

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Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.