Amid progress on electric vehicles, political setbacks frustrate advocates in Maine, Connecticut

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After setbacks to adopting electric vehicle sales targets in Maine and Connecticut, New England clean transportation advocates are regrouping with a focus on charging infrastructure and consumer education. 

Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection voted 4-2 on March 20 against adopting California’s Advanced Clean Cars II rules, which would have required electric or plug-in hybrids to make up 82% of new vehicle sales in the state by model year 2032.

Board members initially signaled support for the proposal, which came from a citizen petition last spring, before their first planned vote was delayed by a severe storm in December. 

Last November, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, pulled a comparable proposal from legislative consideration after it was not expected to have the votes to pass.

Neither state had opted to consider California’s Advanced Clean Trucks standard, which sets similar targets for heavy-duty vehicle sales. 

Maine and Connecticut are among more than a dozen states that have had earlier versions of California’s clean car standards on the books for years. Both states have also prioritized transportation emissions, the region’s biggest contributor to global warming, in their climate plans. 

Some advocates fear progress in this sector will stall in these states until they adopt the updated California rules. They say debate over the standards was clouded by false and misleading claims, often pushed by fossil fuel industry groups, that have ramped up as part of the 2024 presidential campaign. 

“It was really an attempt to confuse and agitate consumers, and unfortunately it was successful,” said Charles Rothenberger, the climate and energy attorney at the Connecticut nonprofit Save the Sound. 

Fear of ‘losing ground’

Even if Connecticut or Maine successfully revisits adopting the California rules next year, it would likely push implementation out to model year 2029 at the earliest, advocates said. 

States that don’t use the new California standards will default to federal rules for reducing vehicle emissions. These rules were just overhauled but have a slower timeline than California’s, designed to accommodate states with lower EV sales rates than in much of New England, Rothenberger said.

“Standards that really cater to the laggards when it comes to EV adoption are really not beneficial to states that are well ahead of that curve,” he said. “I fear that it will lead to us losing ground to states that continue with the California standards,” such as Massachusetts and New York, Rothenberger added. 

This could mean less choice and supply for both new and used electric vehicles as carmakers focus on those other states, he said. 

In the meantime, Connecticut EV advocates are backing a bill in the General Assembly to allow state bonds for charging infrastructure and EV incentives and create an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Coordinating Council to work with utility regulators on system planning, among other provisions. 

Peter LaFond, the Maine program director for the Acadia Center, a regional nonprofit, said the delay in adopting California’s rules provides time for combating misconceptions and for utilizing increasing state and federal funds for charging infrastructure. 

“Every month that goes by, I think there’ll be more and more chargers, and once there are, I think people will see the clear advantages,” LaFond said. “(EVs and plug-in hybrids) lower the carbon footprint and they’re less expensive to operate, and the cold doesn’t present as much of a challenge as the misinformation would have you believe. I think education is going to be a big part of this.” 

A snowball effect in rural areas

Scott Vlaun, the executive director of the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, a nonprofit in the small western Maine town of Norway, said he sees a snowball effect of EV acceptance in his region.

“It’s happening, it’s just not happening fast enough,” Vlaun said. “This is the future, and if Maine doesn’t get its share, then … we’re going to be kind of stuck — in, especially rural Maine — with people driving beat-up, old, inefficient cars, and it’s not good for anybody.” 

CEBE has led a push for a large public EV charger network in and around Norway, which Vlaun said has helped make EVs and hybrids a more common sight everywhere from Main Street to nearby ski resorts. 

“We do this annual EV expo, and if you get people driving an F-150 Lightning, or a Chevy Bolt, depending on what their needs are, they get it,” he said. “So much of the misinformation — it’s almost comical, because it’s obvious that these people have never gotten behind the wheel of an electric car.” 

Vlaun was speaking from his own EV parked at a public charger outside CEBE’s office, having just driven back from a meeting in Portland, Maine, about an hour away. He said he would have liked to take a train or bus instead of driving, but doesn’t have an easy option for doing so. 

“We don’t see electric cars as a one-to-one replacement for gas cars,” he said. “We see electric vehicles as an interim step and a better solution to individual transportation than gas-powered vehicles — not the answer to the world’s transportation problems by any stretch.” 

Advocates in Connecticut agreed that encouraging cleaner public transit, more walkable cities and less driving overall is as much or more important to reducing transportation emissions as EV adoption. 

Community health impacts

Those emissions are linked to disproportionate asthma rates, low school test scores and other adverse public health ripple effects in Connecticut, said Dr. Mark Mitchell, the co-chair of the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council. 

“The people who have the least ability to afford cars and to drive suffer the most from the pollution caused by cars, and so we need to change that — we need to invest in public transportation and making cities walkable and bikeable,” he said. “We’re not going to get rid of cars… but we should make sure that the cars that drive through our communities are as clean as possible, as quickly as possible.” 

Mitchell said he lives in an especially low-income part of Hartford, the state capital — one of the lowest-income cities on the East Coast, with a mostly Black and Latino population. Mitchell said many of his neighbors don’t drive at all and can’t afford new cars, so they don’t yet “see themselves in EVs.” 

“But that’s not the point,” he said. “The point is that they’re very concerned about asthma, they’re very concerned about ADHD, they’re very concerned about school test scores.”

EV adoption across the state is one solution to those problems, he said.  

Jayson Velazquez, the Acadia Center’s Hartford-based climate and energy justice policy associate, used the term “through-emissions” to describe pollution from diesel trucks and other vehicles that traverse low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in Connecticut’s cities en route to nearby highways. 

Unlike those vehicles and their non-local drivers, Velazquez said, “the lasting health effects that come from that pollution don’t just get up and go.” 

Despite concerns about misinformation, advocates acknowledged that they share certain concerns with opponents of the California rules — such as affordability, charging access, the sustainability of minerals mining to build batteries, and strain on the power grid from increasing EV use. 

“There are real issues,” said Mitchell. “We do need to build up the infrastructure, both the charging infrastructure and the electric grid. … But until we set goals, we don’t know how quickly we need to do that. And it’s much easier to put things off if you don’t have a goal.”

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