Traffic congestion on I-95 CT Department of Transportation
Traffic congestion on I-95 CT Department of Transportation

A couple of weeks after the presidential election, Sen. Richard Blumenthal brought together representatives of about a dozen Connecticut environmental advocacy groups to brainstorm ways to deal with climate change under Donald Trump – a man who had called it a Chinese hoax.

What got Blumenthal’s eyes to widen and had him energetically taking notes that afternoon in a spare New Haven City Hall conference room, was something said by Bill Dornbos, who runs the Connecticut office of the regional group Acadia Center. Dornbos – who is a lawyer – told Blumenthal that it would be pretty easy for Trump to get rid of the “California waiver.”

That bit of environmental wonk jargon, part of major revisions to the Clean Air Act in 1970, allows California to set its own stricter-than-federal standards for motor vehicle emissions. It also allows other states to use California’s standards instead of the federal ones.

More than a dozen states do – including Connecticut and nearly every state in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.

Connecticut environmental officials and advocates view the California standards as a linchpin in their own state’s environmental strategies to lower greenhouse gas emissions and traditional pollutants. Not being able to use the standard has the potential to upend the state’s ability to meet its air-quality goals and its requirements for fighting climate change, as well as cripple the electric vehicle business.

Lost among the headline-grabbing actions and planned actions by the Trump administration to undo regulations, policies, and spending priorities of his predecessor were barely noticed stories that the administration is considering rolling back the more stringent motor vehicle pollution standards put in place by the Obama administration as well as rescind the California waiver.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, during his confirmation hearing, did not rule out doing that when asked by California Sen. Kamala Harris. More than a dozen automakers have asked for a review of the new pollution standards.

“I was worried almost from the very beginning, practically the day after the election,” Dornbos said. “The federal fuel economy standards are the foundational building block of any climate change strategy. … I’d rank these regulations as maybe the highest priority for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Especially in Connecticut.

Power plant emissions are extremely low because of the almost complete elimination of coal and oil-burning plants in the region, now replaced by cleaner natural gas. The mobile sector, as it is known, accounts for 41 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the state and 67 percent of the traditional pollutant nitrogen oxide, NOx, a precursor to ground-level ozone, according to 2014 data, the most recent collected by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

That means the best opportunity to cut greenhouse gases and pollution is to do something about what comes out of motor vehicle tailpipes. The state’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy – now being revised for release later this month – will lean heavily on transportation emission cuts, and especially the use of electric vehicles. That is also a focus for the Governor’s Council on Climate Change as it prepares its long-term Climate Action Plan.

Greenhouse gas emissions in Connecticut CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

Enter the California standards by way of the California waiver.

“That policy is driven by raw numbers and the fact that the mobile-source contribution to both GHG emissions and our traditional air pollutants outweigh any other sector’s impact,” said Paul Farrell, assistant director of air planning at DEEP.

Neither is improving. Greenhouse gas emissions went up 7.5 percent from 2012 to 2015, and probably even more in 2016, according to calculations from publicly available data done by Acadia Center, which attributes the rise primarily to the transportation sector. With gas prices low, driving is up dramatically in Connecticut along with sales of larger, less efficient vehicles.

Nitrogen oxide emissions in Connecticut CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

It means the state is no longer on track to meet its 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act greenhouse gas emissions goals, which call for levels 10 percent below those in 1990. It also means that if the auto industry is allowed to manufacture less fuel-efficient vehicles, vehicles will not only pollute more, they will cost drivers more.

“The California waiver is huge, and probably not something that the general public in Connecticut realizes is a significant part of life for us,” said John Humphries, founder of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and one of the non-governmental members of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change.

The state also has a ground-level ozone problem. That’s what you get when emissions like NOx from cars, power plants, industrial facilities and other sources heat up – mainly in the summer. The resulting ozone is a major component of smog, which can cause or worsen a number of health problems, especially asthma and other lung ailments.

In Connecticut and the Northeast, a lot of pollution blows in from upwind states. So rolling back national pollution standards for motor vehicles probably would make the problem worse for Connecticut, which has been in so-called non-attainment with EPA ozone standards for several years.

Last year there were 31 ozone exceedance days, and 22 the year before, though both were far better than the smog-shrouded summers of the 1970s and 80s.

What Connecticut has been trying to do to combat both the greenhouse gas and ozone problems involves greater use of electric vehicles – and that also relies on the California waiver.

In 2013, Connecticut joined a multi-state program, led by California under the auspices of its waiver, to get 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) on the road by 2025. The goal for Connecticut is about 150,000 – as of last May there were 3,558.

Connecticut provides ZEV purchase incentives through a pool of $5.7 million from Eversource. It’s from a settlement fund from the merger of NU and NStar several years ago. About $1.7 million is still available.

A Tesla at a charging station in Greenwich. Jan Ellen Spiegel /

Here’s the problem. If the California waiver is rescinded all states will still have to abide by the federal standard, whatever it may become, on motor vehicle emissions. But the ZEV program only exists through the waiver – there is no ZEV mandate in the federal program. So if the waiver goes, the ZEV program disappears. Period.

“There would be no compelling reason for a manufacturer to try to market electric cars in the state,” Farrell said. “And they’re not doing a great job marketing them now, and we have this requirement.”

Claire Coleman, climate and energy attorney for Connecticut Fund for the Environment, was in her first week on the job during Blumenthal’s November meeting.

“It’s just so frustrating that all of these plans to roll back these rules that put health and safety and environment first; [Trump’s] rolling them back solely to advance bottom lines of industry,” she said.

But it may be doubly frustrating for her. Coleman served on the Democratic staff of the Oversight and Government Reform committee that pulled together the compromise for the fuel efficiency standards the Trump administration now wants to dump.

Those standards set mileage for cars and light trucks at 54.5 miles per gallon for the 2022 to 2025 model years. Automakers agreed to it in 2011, but since Trump came to office, a coalition of them has sent two letters to the Environmental Protection Agency asking to have them revoked, citing technicalities in the approval process and hardships in implementing them.

But Coleman and others said rescinding the California waiver, while relatively easy, would still take time. It would either have to go through a full rulemaking process that could take a couple of years, or the Clean Air Act itself would have to be changed by Congress.

“There will be lawsuits,” she said. “Environmentalists are not going to let this go easily.”

They’re likely to have plenty of company. California has hired former Obama attorney general Eric Holder to fight issues such as the California waiver. Blumenthal, who as attorney general successfully sued the George W. Bush administration over issues related to the Clean Air Act, said it would need to be “all hands on deck.”

“The EPA waiver that allowed California to set its own vehicle emissions standards is rooted in unassailable science,” he said. “To eliminate California’s power to use science to protect is own people is unwise and even possibly unconstitutional.

“I think like the immigration ban, they have failed to think through what they’re doing.”

And Acadia’s Dornbos said all options are on the table for them, including litigation. “We will not leave the future health and prosperity of Connecticut and the Northeast to arbitrary federal decisions that ignore basic science and the law,” he said.

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Jan Ellen SpiegelEnergy & Environment Reporter

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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