With the final passage Friday of a “Connecticut Clean Air Act,” the House put a bow on a productive session for addressing climate change and clean energy, a comeback for environmentalists after recent years of failure and frustration.
The victories come from a confluence of events, including automakers setting a timetable for all-electric product lines and a Biden administration leaning in to that goal with a gusher of federal funding to states for clean transportation.
“These are competitive grant dollars, and they require matching funds,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Environment Committee. “So what are we going to do? We need to put our heads together. And that’s sort of how this was born and really required us to get creative.”
Advocates say this year’s wins can be traced to last year’s defeat of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a relatively esoteric cap-and-invest measure backed by the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont.
The defeat pushed activists to be better organized and more aggressive, fueled a desire among lawmakers to deliver an overdue victory on climate change and imparted hard lessons about messaging, not the least of which was the necessity of making greenhouse gas emissions relevant to a broader audience.
“I think there’s no question at all that the reason we’ve got such momentum this year on climate is because of what happened with TCI last year,” said Lori Brown, the executive director of the League of Conservation Voters.
Opponents of TCI successfully branded the policy as a de facto gas tax whose immediate costs to consumers were more vivid than the eventual benefits to a state struggling to meet clean-air goals set more than a decade ago.
This year, Democrats were not spooked by the near-unanimous Republican opposition to Senate Bill 4, the clean air act. In an election year, every Democrat in the Senate and House voted in support.
Three other environment bills passed with bipartisan support this week.
Senate Bill 10, which sets a zero carbon target of 2040 for all electricity supplied to Connecticut customers, cleared the Senate on a unanimous vote.
Senate Bill 176 makes solar energy more attractive for small businesses and low- to moderate-income communities.
Senate Bill 93 increases access to cheap financing for commercial properties for zero-emissions refueling and climate resilience improvements.
“This has been a banner week for climate policy in Connecticut,” Brown said.
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said the demand for action was growing.
“The reality that I think helps inform all of our policy choices is the things that we can no longer deny,” Lemar said. “The climate is changing. There is an increase in the number of catastrophic weather events. There is an increase in the number of hospitalizations as a result of asthma.”
Senate Bill 4 is intended to accelerate Connecticut’s embrace of electric vehicles with investments in charging infrastructure, tax rebates for e-bikes and electric motor vehicles, and tighter deadlines for electrifying transit and school bus fleets.
The transportation sector is responsible for both greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change and 67% of the emissions of nitrogen oxides, a component of the smog that can exacerbate the high rates of childhood asthma in Hartford and New Haven.
The sponsors of the bill made a strategic decision to broaden the bill’s audience by emphasizing not only the benefits of electric vehicles to fighting climate change but also to improving public health — especially the high rates of asthma plaguing inner city children.
“TCI felt abstract and intangible,” said Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, co-chair of the Transportation Committee. “And in the wake of all the criticism TCI received, we sat down together and talked about what are the things that people can actually touch and feel that will relate to their daily lives — what it’s like to drive behind the school bus or to be a kid on that bus, smelling that diesel exhaust.”
TCI is a cap-and-invest program for motor vehicles that essentially puts a price on carbon pollution to incentivize using less gasoline and diesel fuel. There’s a cap on the emissions level that goes down over time. Gasoline suppliers basically pay to pollute, and the state would get the money.
Aside from the complaint it would increase the cost of gas, TCI suffered from a perception its benefits were geared to privileged suburbanites eager to see spending for a network of recharging facilities for expensive electric vehicles.
“I always felt like when people started talking about the environment that they thought people of color didn’t care and were never included in the conversation,” said Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, a member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
Moore said the pandemic heightened sensitivity to the chronic health threats that make urban children more vulnerable to everything from asthma to COVID-19 complications.
Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, the vice chair of the Environment Committee, said the case and coalition for climate-change has shifted.
“It’s really a multiracial, multigenerational movement,” Palm said. “Now, the days of having it be about white privilege or hippiedom are long gone. It’s about environmental justice. It’s about asthma. It’s about mental health. And it is being led primarily by young people.”
Senate Bill 4 drew Republican opposition over concerns that the bill was committing Connecticut to technology that may not be ready, particularly a goal of relying on electric school buses by 2030 in environmentally vulnerable communities and 2040 elsewhere.
“It’s just going too far, particularly with school buses,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “I have a concern the technology isn’t there.”
But he was relatively measured in his opposition, saying he agreed with the bill’s goals and much of its substance.
The bill empowers the commissioner of energy and environmental protection to adopt regulations implementing California’s medium- and heavy-duty truck standards in Connecticut — essentially a timetable for pushing that fleet towards fewer and and eventually zero emissions.
“The choice is clear, adopting the California framework and the other great initiatives in this bill will be another important step toward cleaner air and better health outcomes for all residents, particularly those who live in our cities and along our transportation corridors, and also gets us headed back in the right direction on our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals,” Lamont said after passage.
New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, among other states, already have adopted the standards.
Rep. Mary Mushsinky, D-Wallingford, a long-time environmental advocate and the longest-serving member of the House, said climate change bills like TCI and the measure passed Friday typically take years to ripen.
“These are future-changing bills. We’re talking about a wholesale changeover of transportation technology. And that’s a big leap.” Mushinsky said.
The Lamont administration lost the messaging war on TCI just as it did in 2019 when the governor proposed reestablishing highway tolls without immediately making the case for what the revenue would buy.
“It was the exact same mistake,” Haskell said. “Everybody was focused on where the money was coming from. Nobody was talking about where the money was going to.”
The mistake, he said, was not repeated in 2022.