Three East Coast states with some of the nation’s most aggressive clean energy targets could see a political shakeup following next week’s elections, with broad ramifications for their reliance on fossil fuels and planned offshore wind projects.
Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine are among several states where the party in control of the governor’s mansion could flip in November. In recent years, all three states have set targets to phase out greenhouse gas emissions economywide by 2050 or sooner, as well as interim commitments to expand renewable energy deployment by the end of the decade.
They’ve also emerged as significant players in the race to harness wind energy from the Atlantic coast, a step seen as crucial for slashing climate-warming emissions in the region.
A key question for Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine is whether they will execute their clean energy plans in coming years, especially since federal policy is largely aligned with their proposals for the first time. The answer undoubtedly depends on who’s in the governor’s mansions.
“Now that the funding structure, the federal tax credit situation is clear, after many years of on-again, off-again uncertainty … that suggests a kind of litmus test of whether the Northeast can really get this done,” said Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
In Maryland and Massachusetts, current Republican governors have championed offshore wind development and, despite objections, have signed climate laws committing their states to net-zero emissions. But polling shows that both states are likely to swing to Democratic leadership for the first time in years, something that could give their Democratic-controlled legislatures more latitude to promote policies that have been stalled during the current administrations.
In particular, Democratic legislators in Massachusetts and Maryland have eyed statewide restrictions on fossil fuel boilers in new buildings. While the party’s candidates for governor haven’t taken a stance on that particular issue, they are promising to supercharge construction of renewables and electrify far more cars and buildings than in previous years.
“The overall center of gravity in [Maryland’s] climate policy has been rapidly increasing in ambition over the past few years, largely driven by the state Legislature,” said Nathan Hultman, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability.
“Now, there’s this question of ‘Good, we’ve set this big, pretty ambitious, high-pressure goal to deliver on. What are we going to do? How are we going to set these pieces in motion?’” he added.
In Maine, current Gov. Janet Mills (D) is facing off against her predecessor, former two-term Gov. Paul LePage (R). Elected in 2018, Mills is currently favored to win, with a double-digit lead in some polls. Still, LePage has been endorsed by Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R), who won a tough reelection campaign in 2020 when pre-election polls mostly favored her Democratic challenger.
Mills has touted her efforts to promote renewable energy and address soaring energy costs, having intervened this month to try to stop an electric rate increase proposed by one of the state’s largest utilities. Meanwhile, LePage — an ardent critic of solar and wind energy during his tenure as governor — has sought to present himself as better equipped to handle inflation, create jobs and stabilize energy prices.
“In the case of Maine, they’re really at a fork in the road, because former Gov. LePage was such a strong opponent of renewable energy and Gov. Mills has been very effective in terms of moving the state toward clean energy,” said Warren Leon, executive director of the Clean Energy States Alliance.
If all three states follow through with their current climate plans, they will need to grapple with their reliance on natural gas for electricity and heating, observers said. How quickly the states can reduce natural gas use, while keeping the lights on and the heat flowing, and what will replace the fossil fuel remain considerable points of debate.
“We don’t have any shot of meeting the overall decarbonization requirements without really dramatically bending the curve on transportation and heating,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, which represents independent electric generators. “Clearly today, heating, like transportation, is almost entirely fossil fuel-based.”
Massachusetts: A future for natural gas?
In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said late last year he would not run for a third term, setting up a race between Maura Healey, the current Democratic state attorney general, and Geoff Diehl, a former Republican representative in the state House.
Healey, who leads the race by more than 20 points in recent polls, is promising a major acceleration of the state’s energy transition — one that would far exceed the pace Baker has charted in recent years.
By 2030, Healey wants 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free resources. As of 2020, natural gas contributed two-thirds of all in-state power generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Democrat says that if elected, she would raise the state’s targets for offshore wind and solar from 5.6 gigawatts and 3.2 GW, respectively, to 10 GW.
Healey also wants to quadruple the amount of energy storage on the grid, deploy 1 million electric heat pumps in buildings and put 1 million electric cars on the road by 2030.
Massachusetts is currently on track to install about 650,000 heat pumps by 2030, according to ISO New England, the region’s grid operator. And as of this year, 60,322 electric vehicles were registered in Massachusetts, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
Healey’s plans respond in part to a climate and energy law Baker signed last summer requiring a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 on the road to a net-zero system by 2050 (Energywire, Aug. 12). Energy officials have said that by midcentury, the state may need as much as 40 GW of solar to emerge — particularly if thermal power plants are retired. Between 15 and 20 GW of offshore wind should be installed by then, as well, according to the state’s decarbonization road map.
Yet the energy transformation Healey is seeking would require managing an intimidating number of obstacles. Solar projects are likely to be treated as industrial eyesores by locals, particularly in the state’s rural western region, while offshore wind remains an unpopular resource among fishers. Long interconnection queues for solar could swell, in tandem with the state’s targets for build-out. It remains an open question what policies will be sufficient to encourage the mass electrification of buildings and cars.
Jürgen Weiss, a former Brattle Group consultant and founder of Dash2Zero, a firm that researches ways to catalyze clean energy, underscored the scale of those challenges.
Healey’s 100 percent clean power goal for 2030 is probably “physically infeasible,” he said, although he approved of her ambition. “It’s the kind of urgency we need.”
Republican candidate Diehl, by contrast, has offered far fewer details about his energy policy plans. His campaign website promises “a greater commitment to renewable energy and promoting energy independence,” as well as the elimination or suspension of taxes for electric vehicles and gasoline.
But in public comments, Diehl has generally defended fossil fuels as important resources for the state, arguing that the net-zero goal for 2050 may not be possible and saying renewable energy “can’t possibly provide all the power” for buildings and cars, according to The Salem News.
Diehl has also tried to block Massachusetts’ participation in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional carbon cap-and-trade program embraced by Baker. Last year, he and two Republican legislators filed a ballot initiative that would ban new taxes or fees on gasoline, diesel and other motor fuels.
Healey’s goals, meanwhile, could bring her into conflict with the state’s fossil fuel industries — a sector she has clashed with as attorney general. In 2019, her office captured national headlines by suing Exxon Mobil Corp., alleging that the company had deceived investors and consumers about the risks of climate change, including by sowing public doubt about climate science (Climatewire, Oct. 25, 2019). That lawsuit is still ongoing.
In recent years, the role of natural gas as a heat source for buildings has been a particular point of contention in Massachusetts.
Local activists there have repeatedly sought to ban gas in new buildings, via city laws that Healey’s office deemed incompatible with state building codes. The climate and energy law gave activists a limited victory, establishing a pilot program that lets 10 cities and towns enact prohibitions.
Some environmentalists want to expand the number of cities that can participate — or even enact a statewide ban, an idea that emerged in last year’s legislation.
“I suspect that [a gas ban] is something we’ll be advocating for this year,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. “Hopefully, a new governor could support that.”
Campaigns for Healey and Diehl did not respond to requests for comment.
Maryland’s heavy lift
The contrast between Democratic and Republican candidates may be even starker in Maryland.
Dan Cox, a far-right Republican state delegate endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has battled with the sitting Republican governor, Larry Hogan, over the latter’s Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. Cox mounted a failed bid to impeach Hogan earlier this year over the lockdowns. Hogan, who is term-limited and can’t run for a third consecutive term, has declined to endorse a candidate he dismisses as a “QAnon whack job” — a reference to Cox’s appearance earlier this year at a conference organized by the conspiracy theorist movement. Spokespeople for Cox did not respond to E&E News inquiries.
Cox has given few indications that he backs major changes to the state’s energy mix. His campaign’s website does not feature a plan for energy policy, and over the summer, he told The Frederick News-Post that he wanted to bring small modular nuclear reactors to Maryland and open the state up for oil and gas development. As recently as 2016, he rejected scientific forecasts about the effects of climate change, prompting the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund to rank him this year among “the worst environmental candidates in the nation.”
“I think we need to have a smart, all-of-the-above approach to make sure we have clean energy,” Cox said at an Oct. 13 general election forum.
“We also need to look at the fact that we’re smart enough to use oil and gas in an appropriate manner,” he added, before promising to expand Marylanders’ access to the state’s natural gas reserves.
Wes Moore, a former nonprofit executive and television producer who is the Democratic candidate, holds a lead of more than 20 points in recent polls.
He wants the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a law requiring 100 percent of Maryland’s power to come from “clean” sources by 2035, with the 80 percent mark arriving in 2030.
That would build on a law Hogan signed this year that commits the state to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, along with a 60 percent reduction by 2031 (Energywire, March 31).
Hultman, of the University of Maryland, said he believes a Democratic governor and Legislature in Maryland could seek to enact energy laws fleshing out in detail how the state would achieve its existing goals.
“Everybody knows you put out an ambitious 2030 goal, an ambitious 2035 goal, that’s not the end of the story. You have to keep rolling out policies that have specific implementation pathways,” said Hultman.
Reaching the clean electricity goals Moore has proposed may be a heavy lift for the state, given Maryland’s reliance on fossil fuels, though.
Natural gas accounted for about 38 percent of the grid’s electricity in 2020, according to state figures, with another 9 percent coming from coal.
The Democratic candidate’s plans, which include a list of actions for his first 100 days in office, say little about how those resources would be treated in coming years. His campaign did not provide responses to inquiries from E&E News.
Under Moore’s plan, offshore wind and solar generation would be expanded using a combination of federal, state and private resources — though the plan does not specific megawatt targets. It also says Moore would hire new climate change staff and appoint officials to identify emissions reduction priorities, while applying a “Justice40” environmental justice lens to budgeting decisions — a reference to a Biden administration pledge to direct 40 percent of all benefits from clean energy investments toward marginalized areas.
“The urgency of the climate crisis is here. We owe it to ourselves, our state and our future generations to take bold actions now,” Moore said at a June press conference where he unveiled his initial plans.
Environmentalists say they believe they will have an ally in Moore, if he is elected.
“I’m envisioning Wes Moore being much more of a partner and a leader with the legislature on these issues,” said Victoria Venable, Maryland director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Hogan’s presence in office has constrained the range of ideas that Democrats in the Legislature would promote in legislation, she said. That could change with a Democrat in the governor’s seat, she added.
Much like in Massachusetts, the idea of banning fossil fuels in new buildings may be one policy that emerges in Maryland’s Legislature.
The state’s Commission on Climate Change, an official council chaired by Hogan’s environmental director, Ben Grumbles, released a road map last year that recommended adopting an all-electric code for new buildings. By the end of 2023, state utility regulators must produce a report evaluating the grid impacts of an all-electric mandate.
Gas utilities in Maryland are likely to resist that mandate, as they did in the previous legislative session.
Stephanie Anne Weaver, a spokesperson for Baltimore Gas and Electric, for instance, said in an email that the company supports decarbonization policies in buildings that would use “an integrated energy system, comprised of gas and electric delivery infrastructure.”
Baltimore Gas and Electric is taking part in state working groups that are considering deep decarbonization of the building sector, she said, in support of Maryland’s net-zero goal for 2045.
“We have a deep commitment to a clean and sustainable future for Maryland and we are eager to partner with State leadership, our customers and communities, and engaged stakeholders in this effort,” she wrote.
Maine: The ‘next frontier’
While the elections in Massachusetts and Maryland could be tipping points for natural gas in those states, Maine’s race could sway how the Pine Tree State confronts its unique fuel challenges and whether offshore wind takes off.
About three-fifths of Maine households use fuel oil as their main source of heat, a greater percentage than that of any other state. As of last week, the average price of heating oil statewide was $5.43 per gallon, more than twice as much as it was two years ago.
“Energy and energy costs are a big concern for people, particularly in Maine because they’re so heavily reliant on heating oil,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at Acadia Center, an environmental group.
One tool for reducing those costs and slashing carbon emissions is electric heat pumps.
Months after she was sworn in as governor in 2019, Mills introduced and signed into law a bill establishing a goal of installing 100,000 new heat pumps by 2025. Since then, about 80,000 heat pumps have been installed in the state, the Mills administration estimated in August.
Former Gov. LePage has touted support for heat pumps, as well, but his record on the issue is mixed. During his first term as governor, the Republican vetoed an omnibus energy bill in 2013 that, among other measures, allocated funding to an energy efficiency initiative and established a heat pump pilot program. At the time, LePage said the bill would raise electricity costs and criticized its provisions on wind energy, a technology he called “very expensive” and inefficient. The Maine Legislature ultimately overrode his veto.
More recently, LePage has said he would have used a budget surplus in the state to subsidize heating oil this winter, rather than send $850 checks to Maine taxpayers as the Mills administration did this year.
The former governor has also called for expanding hydropower development and suggested revitalizing the shuttered Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. The facility has been closed since 1997.
“He has definitely worked a contrast on Mills in a few different areas,” said Nick Murray, director of policy at the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative-leaning nonprofit. “On the wind and solar stuff, it comes down to the fact that LePage doesn’t see it as a sufficient source of energy. He sees it as wasteful and not really worth subsidizing.”
Neither candidate’s campaign responded to requests for comment. The race is closer than the Maryland and Massachusetts contests in most polls. The Cook Political Report currently ranks Maine as a “likely Democratic” win, while the other states are listed in the ”solid Democratic” category.
Shortly after she was sworn in, Mills signed into law new requirements for Maine to become carbon neutral by 2045 and for 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2050. She also got rid of a moratorium on offshore wind permits that the LePage administration had instituted.
Enacted in 2018 by LePage, the offshore wind moratorium was instituted because of the technology’s potential impacts on the state’s tourism industry, the former governor said at the time. The fishing industry had also raised concerns about offshore wind projects’ effects on fishing grounds.
While Mills has sought to minimize conflicts with the fishing industry, her administration proposed developing the country’s first floating offshore wind farm in 2020. LePage has said he would withdraw the proposal.
“Clearly, a Gov. LePage means offshore wind is at risk, whereas Gov. Mills has been supportive of it and is looking to develop an offshore wind hub off the coast of Maine,” said Greg Cunningham, vice president for clean energy and climate change at the Conservation Law Foundation, a climate and clean energy advocacy group.
How the state handles the issue in the coming years could have significance nationally. The Gulf of Maine is thought to have some of the highest wind energy potential in the country, but development of the technology has lagged compared to other East Coast states, in part because the deep waters pose a challenge for installing turbines and because of the LePage administration’s opposition (Greenwire, Aug. 18).
“[Maine] is essentially the next frontier,” Cunningham said. “All of the other projects are located in existing designated wind energy areas, so the path forward there, while not entirely clear, is a lot more clear than it is in Maine.”
Other than offshore wind, few energy issues have divided Mainers more than a $1 billion transmission project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect. Seen as key for New England’s clean energy future, the project would send power from hydroelectric dams in Canada to the New England power grid.
Critics, however, have questioned the transmission line’s climate benefits and argued that it would spoil the state’s unique landscapes. A contentious ballot question last year sought to derail the transmission project, although the Maine Supreme Court ruled last month that the referendum was unconstitutional (Climatewire, Sept. 6).
The power line is one of the few energy issues that the two current gubernatorial candidates agree on, with both wanting to see it through.
“LePage thinks about it [in] a cost way. … If we can guarantee more supply, we can stabilize prices,” Murray said. “Mills sees it as part of the regional environmental and climate goals, but I think she understands we need clean energy to come into this grid if she wants to move that way.”