Jan. 25—A diverse group of Maine leaders, including the state's largest car dealership, is calling on federal authorities to implement a new round of federal clean car standards to protect Maine's environment and public health.
In a news conference held via Zoom on Wednesday, the group urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to introduce strict greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger vehicles made after 2027. The agency plans to announce these new standards by March.
"Implementing these standards this March will make good on the Biden administration's promises to put in place the strongest possible standards and drive investments in clean cars as well as saving Mainers money at the pump," said Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach.
These standards work in tandem with fuel economy standards regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which mandates how the minimum number of miles a vehicle must travel on a gallon of gas. Those standards are due out in April.
Tailpipe emissions produce about half of the carbon pollution that causes climate change, said Gramlich, the co-chair of the Legislature's environment committee. Adopting strict new clean car standards is the only way we can realize our goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, she said.
It will also help the 136,000 Mainers — including 20,000 children — who have asthma, a respiratory illness that can be caused by and exacerbated by air pollution, said Rebecca Boulos, the executive director of the Maine Public Health Association.
"In Maine, we are in the unfortunate position of importing most of our air pollution from other states due to wind direction and geography," Boulos said. "This pollution hurts our air quality, which can increase the incidence and prevalence of respiratory illnesses, including asthma."
These health risks can't be emphasized enough, Boulos said.
The health risks linked to bad air quality are even higher among Maine's underserved and marginalized populations, who tend to have less access to preventive health care and treatment, and live closer to high-pollution areas, including highways, Boulos said.
"We need to make the transition to cleaner and zero-pollution vehicles," Boulos said. "By investing in cleaner cars, and reducing harmful pollution, we are investing in Maine people, ensuring our most vulnerable populations, including our children, have cleaner air."
Maine is seeing the results of a rapidly changing climate in our warming winters, severe storms, and rising average temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, said Kathleen Meil, senior policy director at Maine Conservation Voters. Making cars cleaner will cut the pollution that causes these changes.
Adam Lee of Lee Auto Mall, the biggest car dealership in Maine by volume, warned that automakers will claim they can't make cleaner cars without going bankrupt. But that's what they said about previous federal mandates, like seat belts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes, Lee noted.
Demand for low-emission, high-efficiency vehicles is so high that one of Lee's dealerships had to stop taking orders last summer for a plug-in hybrid Toyota RAV4 — which had a base price of $42,000 and achieved 94 miles per gallon — after the wait list reached eight months.
That's a car dealer's dream, said Lee, who grew up in the business and has 35 years of experience.
"Crucial improvements are in your car today because of the rules requiring it," Lee said. "So the next time you hear a manufacturer tell you the standards can't be achieved, what they're really saying is they don't want to. Because it's being done today."
While zero-emission electric vehicles may be the long-term dream for environmentalists and policymakers alike, the government needs to accept that not everyone, especially in Maine, can afford such vehicles, even if there were enough available for purchase, Lee said.
But Lee noted that his dealerships offer a dozen "old-fashioned" gas-powered cars that get between 50 and 60 miles per gallon, exceeding the 46 miles per gallon federal fuel economy standard that new models must hit by 2026.
That kind of innovation empowers Lee to aim high in the next round of clean car and fuel economy standards from the EPA and the NHTSA later this year. He said: "We should be shooting for the highest standards possible."
Higher gas mileage cars aren't cheap, Lee admitted, but he said it's not clean car standards that make new cars so expensive — it's the heated seats, blue tooth, and in-car computers that come standard in every model. At least a "clean car" will cost you less at the pump, he said.