A look at state legislators’ environmental agenda for 2023

PFAS, lithium mining, renewable energy among issues likely to face Maine’s 131st Legislature.
Exterior of the Maine state house
Forever chemicals, lithium mining and renewable energy will be among the most pressing environmental topics on the agenda this legislative session. Photo by Gabe Souza.

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.

Energy lobbyists Jeremy Payne and Tony Buxton are often at odds in the Maine Legislature. Payne is the acting head of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, and Buxton is an attorney with PretiFlaherty who oversees what’s known as the Industrial Energy Consumer Group. (Disclosure: My husband is also an energy attorney at Buxton’s firm.) The two were part of a legislative preview hosted Thursday in Augusta by the trade group E2Tech.

As Buxton finished remarks on how he hopes the legislature will work to keep energy costs low as it tries to encourage renewables adoption, he handed it off to Payne, who joked, “I’ll just say the exact opposite of what Tony just said.”

Among other things, the two disagree on how net billing policies to encourage solar power have affected Mainers’ energy bills. Beside them on the panel, Sen. Mark Lawrence (D-Eliot) joked to the audience, “See what my life is like?”

Lawrence chairs the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT), which he estimated will have at least 200 bills referred to it this session. Most of them will likely bring out these complex, perennial debates about costs, urgency, justice and trade-offs — all essential parts of the climate change conversation.

The E2Tech panel featured some expected hot topics from EUT and the Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) committee, which together cover a lot of the legislature’s contributions on climate, drinking water issues, utility regulation and more. Here are three key issues with bills to watch for 2023:

PFAS chemicals

“Forever chemicals,” which the Monitor has covered extensively, were a priority for the legislature last year and will be again this year. Lawmakers are seeking to ease the impact of PFAS contamination on farmers, weed out sources of the chemicals in the economy, and offset rising testing and treatment costs.

Panelist Ben Lucas, a lobbyist for the state Chamber of Commerce, hopes to see tweaks made to the state’s new law requiring companies to disclose PFAS added to their products and stop selling them in the state by 2030. The chemicals are linked to serious health problems and don’t break down in nature.

“We’ve all heard the tragic stories, heartbreaking stories that have come up farming community,” Lucas said. “We want to be involved to help solve that aspect of it, but just make sure that policy is enacted in a way that doesn’t cripple our business community, our economy and the jobs that they provide.”

PFAS are famously “in everything,” from cosmetics and frying pans to clothing and furniture to Scotchgard and industrial coatings, not to mention the firefighting foam that has contaminated hundreds of military sites. This creates huge challenges for “source reduction” laws like Maine’s that aim to identify where the chemicals are coming from.

Lucas said the law was “well intended” but “more broad than anyone anticipated” with huge potential compliance costs for businesses. He noted that it’s still unclear how federal regulators or industries define the class known as PFAS, which can contain thousands of individual combinations of molecules.

Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Gorham), who chairs the ENR committee, said there was a long on-ramp to the law taking full effect and amendments could be coming.

“There seems to be quite a bit of concern from the products industry about their products and whether or not they’re willing to report that they have PFAS in them,” she said. “I think it’s prudent for us to make sure that we’re not letting up on the gas pedal here.”

Lithium mining

This newsletter’s lead author Kate Cough broke the story, in 2021, of a massive lithium deposit found in Newry, near Sunday River. Lithium is part of the accelerating “critical minerals race” to fuel renewable technology — and Maine may have one of the world’s largest treasure troves of it.

But Maine also has one of the strictest mining statutes in the country. What this means for the Newry deposit and others like it could be on legislators’ plates this session — considering moratoria, or other regulatory approaches to mining.

Panelist Pete Didisheim, the interim CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he sees many open questions about the Newry lithium deposit.

“There’s a lot we don’t know. I think this year, that will be exposed in a lot of ways,” he said. “I believe we have an excellent mining law in place, and any modifications to that should keep the high environmental performance standards in place for any type of mining, including lithium.”

Renewable energy

On the EUT side, Sen. Lawrence has already come out with a bill that would have the state of Maine procure a huge amount of offshore wind energy, and said a similar bill is in the offing for solar procurement.

With that offshore wind proposal comes renewed debate over the wind industry hub the state has proposed in Searsport. Buxton said he hopes legislators will “close” on that process, not delay it with further debate or bills to backtrack.

Buxton said he also hopes to see the legislature double down on incentives for electric heat pumps. And Didisheim, in the ENR panel, said he’s awaiting a bill that would create a kind of “mitigation bank” for wildlife habitats, where solar developers could put money to offset impacts from their projects’ fencing.

Also sure to be in the spotlight this session are the major wind and transmission projects in the works in Northern Maine. The legislature was the original source of the law requiring the projects’ selection. Now, there are already talks of bills to undo the whole process — as well as bills to enshrine it further.

Buxton and Payne said they expect net energy billing tweaks will come up again in the legislature. The 2019 law, which aimed to incentivize solar development, has led to a glut of proposals that quickly outpaced utility and state resources. Legislators have long eyed changes to address this, and those changes could be among the many under debate in the coming months.


To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: A look at state legislators’ environmental agenda for 2023.

Reach Annie Ropeik with story ideas at: aropeik@gmail.com.

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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