Katie Dykes, Connecticut’s commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, can tell you precisely how much time she’s spent on Zoom meetings since the pandemic stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020.
“A lot. A lot.” And then she laughs — a lot.
It became a common sight — Dykes Zooming away in what in normal times was her three kids’ playroom that she’d co-opted as a home office.
“I could close the door and most of the time be able to be on a call without a little person popping in, but not always,” she said of her children ages eight, six and four, while speaking on … well … a telephone, not Zoom, on a day state offices were just starting to reopen.
From her spot in front of the blue wall, and occasionally other rooms in her home, Dykes closed parks, opened parks, touted the techniques of social distancing on trails and dealt with several storms and resulting widespread power outages. She started the process of upending electric grid management, planned how to realign the power for that grid and oversaw hundreds of people volunteering to write a climate change master plan for the state. She tackled the 5-alarm emergency of the state’s antiquated waste management systems. And she piloted any number of legislative initiatives — including the small, but mighty, Transportation and Climate Initiative to begin the process of reducing carbon emissions from transportation — through a barely tame-able legislative session.
It was a daunting list of undertakings if there were no pandemic. In a pandemic?
“It was amazing. Zoom turned out to be one of the most fantastic, I guess technological, accidents for tackling this crisis,” she said, specifically referring to the waste overhaul process after it became clear the big Hartford trash-to-energy and recycling facility was destined to be abandoned.
Zoom is the real hero in the fact that it drove a lot of participation. ”
Officially the process was called the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management, launched last August with four working groups involving more than 75 municipalities and dozens of other officials. They muscled through many difficult issues to establish priorities in time to get legislation ready for January.
“Had we tried to do that in the normal course with in-person meetings … I don’t think we would have gotten a fraction of the participation that we did,” Dykes said.
She has company in that view.
“There’s no way they could have conducted all of those meetings with the volume of research done and embedded; I don’t believe it could have happened,” said Matt Knickerbocker, first selectman of Bethel who served as CCSMM co-chair.
Aside from the huge array of municipal elected and appointed officials involved in the meetings, he said they could see from the Zoom registrations that there were lobbyists from all over the East Coast and experts from all over, period.
“What we have achieved is a level of awareness and involvement at the municipal level that wouldn’t have been as large and effective as it was,” he said.
Dave Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority who has been proactive on his own pushing pilot projects on food waste composting and other initiatives, said Dykes was phenomenally successful in getting people engaged, including members of his own board.
“Zoom is the real hero in the fact that it drove a lot of participation,” he said. “It made it easy for people.”
The ways we access legislators had to change, because they could avoid us. ”
But it took a bit for Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel, to come around. “I was really irritated in the beginning by that,” she said of DEEP’s insistence on forging ahead with public sessions and other initiatives when organizations like hers were slammed with people suddenly in desperate need of services due to the pandemic.
“I was under tremendous pressure and stress,” she said. “I was just feeling like, ‘Could we just hit the pause button for a minute? We’re responding to basic needs.’”
Ultimately she saw that keeping things moving was the right approach. And it wound up saving her a lot of time.
“We were able to fully engage in the legislative process. If it was 1 in the morning, you could just roll over and testify. Looking back on it, I feel like DEEP did a really good job of keeping all the balls in the air.”
The Connecticut League of Conservation Voters got to see Zoom-power in its own operation, moving its annual pre-session environmental summit online.
“Everybody took a pivot in some fashion,” said Lori Brown, the executive director. “Everything shifted.”
Brown said the easy access increased summit participation by about one-third over typical in-person attendance. She said about 50 lawmakers joined in, when usually it’s 35 or 40.
“People really missed the networking,” Brown conceded. “That’s the golden facetime that you get.”
She and others said that was a critical component missing by not having access at the Capitol.
“The ways we access legislators had to change, because they could avoid us,” said Leah Lopez Schmalz, chief program director at Save the Sound. No more hanging around in the lunchroom waiting to pounce. Tactics shifted to more direct calls and social media shout-outs. But she said online access un-cloaked the process to the public.
“We recognized that we are in an age where our population should be able to access their government, and there should be transparency,” she said. “That was a learning exercise that occurred this session, and it was a good one.”
Dykes also used Zoom and online sessions to wrangle other major long-term projects.
“I didn’t want to have a lost year,” she said.
Most notably, she marshalled all six New England states, regional grid operator ISO-New England, stakeholders and experts from all over to begin discussing how to reform the rules governing grid operations and especially how to incorporate more renewable energy. Long a frustration of hers, even at the height of the pandemic she ran a series of online public forums featuring experts from all over the country on what is now called the New England Energy Vision.
She and the other states got plenty of engagement and feedback. Participants made it clear that environmental justice considerations were being ignored in the three main topics that were addressed.
“We heard from stakeholders who said, ‘Hey now, you’ve missed something critical here,’” Dykes said.
So an environmental justice technical session was added, and more than 400 people participated. “It was a set of issues and voices that had not been heard; had not had a place in our regional electric policy dialogues,” Dykes said.
And last month, the New England States Committee on Electricity, which represents the six New England governors’ electricity interests, issued a synthesis of what’s happened so far plus some recommendations for moving ahead.
Another major effort was a report from the Governor’s Council on Climate Change (GC3) to provide a detailed path for addressing climate change across the breadth of just about everything in the state. It would require massive public input, never mind the nearly 300 people working on it.
The first public session was held in New Haven about two weeks before the stay-at-home order was issued in March 2020. Dykes considered delaying or suspending the work.
It was just relentless problem-solving. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we got it wrong. We kept adapting; we kept adjusting. ”
“What are we going to do?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s climate change; you can’t delay. Climate change isn’t going to stop.”
On it went — producing a 1,000-page report. Dykes said she was shocked at what was accomplished by volunteers even while managing their own upended lives.
“I think there’s a certain level of adrenaline that has been part of responding to all these issues,” she said.
She recalled when the stay-home order came, she had to get 500 employees moved to telework in a weekend.
“That was a Herculean effort. It took a lot of folks scrambling and we got it done. That to me was the first injection of ‘OK. Yes, we can do this.’ You gotta act with urgency. The moment requires it. That’s what leadership is about.
“It was just relentless problem-solving. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we got it wrong. We kept adapting; we kept adjusting.”
Sixteen months later, Dykes admits the online processes, massive stakeholder involvement and sheer volume of work did not work out in the legislature quite as she had envisioned.
She made several attempts to choose words to describe her post-session thoughts, noting that after last year’s non-session, there were a lot of priorities competing for a limited amount of time.
“Am I disappointed that we,” then she stops. “Climate and clean energy legislative proposals that we brought forward, many of them, how do I want to say this? I was surprised that we did not get,” and she cuts herself off again. “I don’t know how to say this. I certainly wanted to see many more of our climate and clean energy proposals make it to the governor’s desk.”
The biggest failure — so big it nearly eclipsed what successes there were — was the Transportation Climate Initiative, something advocates called the most important environmental legislation in years. TCI itself was conceived 10 years ago as a multi-state climate change-combatting concept for motor vehicles. It puts a cap on carbon pollution from motor vehicles, and a price on gasoline and transportation diesel fuel that’s above the cap as a way to incentivize using less of it.
We are still committed to seeking to implement TCI. ”
Gasoline suppliers pay that cost, which most likely they would pass to consumers. The states get the money and Connecticut planned to find ways to cycle at least half that money to underserved, over-burdened and other environmental justice communities. It also would help lower traditional pollutants in the process, likely improving health circumstances for areas closest to highways that suffer disproportionately from asthma — again, mostly economically challenged populations.
All the legislature had to do was pass a short bill that allowed Dykes and her team to create a state-specific program. For all the high-tech pandemic solutions and Zoom sessions and socially distanced know-how, all it took was a series of old fashioned news conferences by Republicans who labeled the program a gas tax — which it is not — to derail it.
That, said Schmalz of Save the Sound, was a clear downside of operating online, not in person.
“I think not being in the building when that tax mis-message took hold was challenging,” she said. “It meant that message stayed around. … No one is there to clarify quick things so misinformation or lack of information doesn’t become a death knell.”
While TCI still exists and is moving ahead at varying rates in 11 other jurisdictions from New England to North Carolina, Connecticut’s hands are now tied.
“Yes,” Dykes said. “We can’t effectively implement this program.”
But she said: “We are still committed to seeking to implement TCI.”
She said the most important thing to do now in advance of having another crack at legislative approval, whenever that might come, is to keep explaining to legislators, stakeholders, business leaders and citizens about the climate, health and eventual financial benefits of TCI. “And another important thing we are doing is listening,” she said.
She’s also waiting for new data on greenhouse gas emissions in the state — due any day now — to help make the case that TCI is needed.
There’s really no time for disappointment. These things are too important. ”
While TCI has gotten much of the focus, there was an array of wins and losses for Dykes. A bill that would have allowed DEEP to consider whether to adopt stricter emissions regulations for medium and heavy-duty vehicles, for example, became collateral damage in the TCI crash-and-burn.
Of a pair of companion climate bills offered by the governor, a mitigation bill never got a vote. An adaptation bill did pass, making way for the Green Bank to expand its reach to environmental infrastructure and allowing, but not requiring, all municipalities to establish stormwater authorities to collect funds for climate adaptation and resilience projects. These measures are some of the first concrete actions to come out of the massive GC3 report that Dykes shepherded through the pandemic.
For all the effort put into dealing with the state’s waste crisis, the results were mixed. After years of trying, the bottle bill was updated, increasing the deposit and revamping other components, though not as robustly as initially envisioned. An effort to get more food waste out of the main waste stream — seen by some as key to reforming the rest of the waste system — did pass but was somewhat watered down. It affects only commercial operations, but to much less of an extent than some wanted to see.
And a bill to add tires, smoke detectors and gas cylinders to the list of items Connecticut requires their manufacturers to take end-of-life responsibility for also never made it to a vote.
There were a few other wins for environmentalists, but a good deal more frustration and disappointment, now followed by determination.
Watson, of Operation Fuel, said she hopes environmental folks can hold onto the frustration they have now and use it moving forward.
“If we don’t take this time to use it as leverage and reminding (legislators) that we’re sending them to represent us in the moment and the future, we will go back to status quo,” she said. “The pandemic was a reminder to everyone we really have to do this work.”
Asking Dykes whether there were too many near-misses for her taste, she says: “Yeah,” and then sighs and then recalls talking about what she calls “the ‘D’ word — disappointed.”
“On these issues, and especially issues as urgent and compelling as environmental justice and air pollution and the climate crises, there’s really just no time for disappointment. It’s so urgent for us to make progress. Look, if we didn’t get these bills over the line this year, then I’m doubling down — I’m just, ‘OK we didn’t get it, so why not and what’s our plan to fix it?’” she said.
“There’s really no time for disappointment. These things are too important.”
“No one ever said climate action was gonna be easy.” And then she lets out that laugh again.