Council drills into climate and environmental policy

Resolutions and reports urge sea change, warn of rising waters
By Ethan Andrews | Dec 24, 2018
Source: Penobscot Marine Museum This 1853 illustration of Belfast Bay appears in a recent report by the city's Climate Change Committee that forecasts the next chapter of Belfast's long history of waterfront industry will have to contend with sea level rise and increasingly violent storms.

Belfast — The U.S. government should levy a progressive tax on carbon emissions and put the brakes on offshore oil drilling, climate change is already expensive, and users of a new electric car charging station in downtown Belfast shouldn't get unlimited free parking with their free electricity.

Those were some of the conclusions the City Council reached Tuesday night, during a meeting littered with environmental considerations.

The city's Climate Change Committee presented its second of three reports on the outlook for Belfast during the predicted rise in sea levels and other byproducts of human carbon emissions. The report focused on economic impacts and concluded that, as a coastal community, Belfast's critical infrastructure, tourism and recreation industries, fisheries, property values and quality of life stand to suffer.

Government would accrue costs alongside property owners and businesses, the report concludes.

Committee member Hank Reisner on Dec. 18 displayed a chart in the Council Chambers listing the costs of repairs the city has made or priced out for future budgets, including an estimated $401,550 for shoreline rip rap at a half-dozen locations that have experienced rapid erosion.

"You can see, it's clearly indicating increasing costs," he said, "all due to storms, sea level rise and tidal surges."

Compounding the problem, Reisner said, a portion of the tax revenue that contributes to the city budget for repairs comes from shorefront properties that could lose value with changes in weather and water levels. Last year, the 220 shorefront properties identified by the committee accounted for about 14 percent of the total Belfast raised from property taxes for city government, county government and schools.

City backs federal carbon tax bill

In other business, the four councilors, minus Councilor Paul Dean, who was absent, unanimously approved a resolution from the Belfast Area chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby to support the creation of a new federal tax on carbon emissions, with a goal of speeding a transition away from energy sources that contribute to climate change.

The bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act would impose a fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide on fossil fuels at the source, or at the port of entry, during its first year. Every year after that, the fee would go up by either $15, if the goals aren't being met, or $10 if they are. Dividends would be put in a trust and paid out equally to every adult citizen, with half credits paid for children.

Similar to a steel tariff, which would affect not only steel manufacturers, but any manufacturers that rely on the metal, the carbon tax would affect not only bulk fuels like gasoline and heating oil, but anything that requires fuel to produce or distribute. Supporters of the tax expect that businesses would pass on the added cost to consumers by increasing prices. But because higher-income households tend to consume more, supporters say, the effect would be a progressive tax.

This bodes well for lower-income households, according to Citizens' Climate Lobby. The group estimates that 66 percent of people nationally, and 80 percent in Maine, would get more money back in dividends than they pay out as a result of higher prices.

Speaking before Tuesday night's meeting, Steve Ouillette, a co-founder of the Belfast chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby, said efforts to get a carbon tax started slowly but have been gaining traction in Washington. A bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in Washington currently has 74 members. As the caucus has grown, Ouillette said, Citizens' Climate Lobby has shifted its priority from getting enough representatives on board to draft a bill, to getting legislation passed.

"Whenever you get that many people, it becomes a voting block," he said.

Ouillette had not been involved in political activism before but said he was compelled to get involved after learning of what are likely to be long-lasting effects of climate change. And he was encouraged that the latest reports have been backed by economists.

"I'm older, but as I see it, this is something that's going to impact generations down the line," he said. "I'm really concerned about what's going to happen." He added that the current plan "seems doable."

Against off-shore drilling leases

On Tuesday, the council adopted a resolution opposing offshore oil and gas speculation along the Maine coast. The resolution was brought to the council by Mayor Samantha Paradis and comes in response to the U.S. secretary of the interior's draft 2019-2024 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program.

The council unanimously supported the resolution, which describes the program as, among other things, contrary to the city's goal of promoting "a clean and sustainable future."

Electric car parking, with charger

The council also considered amending parking rules for two spaces next to an electric car charging station in the Beaver Street municipal parking lot, limiting charging sessions to four hours. The city posted a 15-minute limit for non-electric cars when the charging station was installed in May but set no limit for electric cars. Councilor Mike Hurley said he's seen an electric car parked in the spot for as long as four days.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the council changed the parking rules on Dec. 18. The question is scheduled for a first reading at the council's Jan. 2 meeting.

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