On a day when Connecticut experienced firsthand the apocalyptic look and effects of climate change — with the smoke and pollution from Canadian wildfires choking the state — it was no small irony that the legislative session ended with basically no new legislation to address the problem.
“Look out your window,” said a clearly exasperated Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes, as the hours ticked down on Wednesday. “You can see it. Wildfires from Canada. This is climate change. Right out the window.”
Not that Connecticut’s environmental community ever had high hopes for earth-shaking legislation this session to address climate change, waste disposal or other critical issues.
“It’s downright depressing. It’s deeply concerning,” said Nathan Frohling of the Nature Conservancy, calling the session a failure on climate. “The fires and the smoke remind us that climate change is not just something that’s abstract and somewhere else for somebody else to worry about. It is something that we’re all going to be affected by.”
With most measures outright killed, remaining legislation was lucky if it was only watered down and not gutted.
Dykes admitted there was “not much to show for it at the end.”
Climate change legislation suffered early and often. The main bill never made it out of committee. It would have given DEEP the power to designate greenhouse gas emission targets for specific sectors of the economy and levy penalties if they weren’t met. Opponents, largely from the ranks of Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, called the penalties a tax. And a fiscal note — which many said was actually an error — finished the measure off.
Many legislators objected to concentrating so much power with the DEEP commissioner for that and other bills. But Dykes and others pointed out that Connecticut is an outlier among states in the lack of authority its executive agencies can wield without constantly going back for legislative approval.
“In New York, the debate is about doing an economy-wide cap-and-invest program. And in Connecticut, the debate is about whether DEEP is overreaching, when we propose legislation that other states adopted years ago to enable the department to not only do plans but also to propose regulations and programs that will reduce emissions,” Dykes said, noting that the legislature has set greenhouse gas emission targets, but the state isn’t meeting them or on track to do so.
“My job is to make sure that we’re implementing against the targets that the legislature set, but I don’t have the tools,” she said — a sentiment echoed by others.
Climate bill Plan B would have started the process of developing a statewide so-called decarbonization roadmap, as other states have done. It would have woven short- and long-term climate goals across all of government, along with paths to reach them.
After lengthy debate that included comments that climate change wasn’t important to constituents or even real, it made it through the House with only one Republican vote but never made it to the Senate floor.
Rep. Christine Palm, D-Essex, who sponsored the legislation, laid some of the blame on the process, which allows for filibustering and, in her view, puts too much emphasis on compromise.
“I just don’t believe that, especially when it comes to climate,” she said. “We cannot compromise away our values and the science and the real protections for people coming up behind us. We just don’t have the moral right to do that.
“I don’t really care if that makes me sound like an extremist. Because the extreme weather demands extreme measures, and we’re not doing it.”
A bill that would have mandated most new schools be net zero for greenhouse gas emissions was completely overhauled as a Green Bank financing program for schools that voluntarily want to install solar power and other energy saving alterations. It failed anyway. Even a bill that would have raised the caps on the state’s three popular solar programs failed.
And a bill that would have tackled building emissions, the second-largest category of carbon emissions in Connecticut after transportation, was gutted, then pulled apart. Its only surviving section provides for increased tree coverage in environmental justice communities.
And while a transportation bill included setting a carbon budget for the Department of Transportation, it won’t kick in until 2030.
Environmental justice scored arguably the only success, though it is more strictly environmental, not directly climate-related. After two years of failure, legislation passed that gives DEEP and the Siting Council the authority to deny permits to certain types of stationary polluting facilities (known in the law as “affecting” facilities) — such as power or waste treatment plants — in areas already burdened by such problems. Those areas generally are low income and/or minority areas.
But it, too, was watered down: Expansions of existing plants were eliminated from the bill.
“I’m not thrilled about that,” said Alex Rodriguez, a key advocate at Save the Sound and a member of the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “But overall, I am pleased with the outcome. There are many positive things that came as a result of this.”
How it plays out remains unclear, since there is no time limit on developing regulations, which is what would actually trigger implementation.
Rodriguez’s colleague at Save the Sound, attorney Charles Rothenberger, called the bill a great step forward but also acknowledged the inherent process difficulties.
“The clear takeaway, and the message that is pretty hard to ignore, is that the General Assembly doesn’t seem to care much about doing anything on climate,” he said, “despite the extraordinary efforts by a small group of really dedicated legislators who really went to the mat for this stuff.”
Elsewhere on the environment front, a previously comprehensive bill to deal with the state’s waste crisis, which is now driven to the brink by the closure of the MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford nearly a year ago, passed in the closing hour of the session, whittled down to mainly one component: a process to figure out how to replace the plant.
While it became apparent a couple of months ago that the bill would shrink, what many considered a key component was jettisoned at the last minute. It would have ramped up financial and other assistance to help municipalities get food waste out of the waste stream.
Getting food waste out has the potential to shrink the amount of trash to be dumped by nearly 25%, thereby saving towns money along with other environmental benefits. Municipalities have been very vocal about wanting to do that but need money to start up programs. A pilot program to do that has already proven successful but is out of funds.
“We’re obviously looking under every couch cushion,” Dykes said. “I don’t think that what is coming out of this session truly reflects the set of solutions that I think stakeholders and municipalities really want.”
One waste success was legislation requiring tire companies to take responsibility for end-of-life disposal of tires, known as extended producer responsibility.
A great deal of time was spent on a large energy bill, known as SB7. But it was really a consumer bill, not energy or climate, designed to reinforce changes already underway over how the state’s utilities are regulated. Some of those changes are already facing scale-backs in the budget.
And then there were bears. Among the many proposals for dealing with the state’s bear problem, it was a fairly modest bill that actually made it through. No bear hunts or extreme rules.
It clarified existing rights of residents to kill a bear that is attacking. It allows farmers suffering from crop or livestock destruction by bears to get a permit from DEEP to kill the bear. And it bans intentional feeding of bears.
“I call this a good first step,” said Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, Senate ranking member on the Environment Committee, after the bill passed the Senate.
“I, unfortunately, don’t think this is enough in terms of truly addressing what needs to be addressed,” he said. “I do think, at some point, we need to discuss a hunting season regulated and limited by DEEP, as they’ve recommended time and time again.”
Bears will likely be back, along with much more, Rothenberger said.
“I think environmental issues getting short shrift has really fired people up.”