Katie Dykes, the commissioner of DEEP, pitching electric cars and new EV regs in a Toyota showroom. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

On the sales floor of the A-1 Toyota dealership in New Haven, Katie Dykes was selling a vision of Connecticut’s car-buying future Wednesday: A rapidly increasing number of electric vehicles, a network of fast chargers and incentives that Dykes jauntily called “cash on the hood.”

Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, has a mixed record of closing deals with a General Assembly that readily acknowledges the reality of climate change and transportation-related pollution but often has dragged its heels on giving her powers enjoyed by peers in other states.

The occasion Wednesday was a relatively esoteric public-policy milestone: The publication of proposed regulations ensuring Connecticut continues to meet evolving California standards for passenger-car emissions, a commitment made 20 years ago during the administration of a Republican governor, John G. Rowland.

More recently, the Connecticut Clean Air Act passed in 2022 at the urging of Dykes and her Democratic boss, Gov. Ned Lamont, requires increasingly cleaner emissions for trucks through 2032. By 2035, auto manufacturers must offer only zero-emission electric vehicles in the state.

“We cannot meet our goals to do our part to reduce emissions and slow climate change if we do not reduce emissions for the transportation sector, and a big part of the solution is offering more electric vehicle and clean vehicle options for Connecticut drivers,” Dykes said.

With weather extremes ranging from drought to deluge, interspersed with periodic heat waves like that one expected to settle over the region for the remainder of the week, the summer of 2023 is emerging as a potential catalyst for climate legislation.

The press conference featuring Dykes, Lamont, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, lawmakers and advocates came on a day when the front page of the New York Times featured a story warning that warming ocean waters were showing signs of reaching a tipping point towards disrupting crucial currents that shape the climate around the North Atlantic.

The messaging for climate-change bills has broadened in Connecticut from an emphasis on how state policies can eventually reduce greenhouse gases to the more immediate impacts that cleaner air will have on urban children who suffer from some of the highest rates of asthma in the U.S.

New Haven was called one of the nation’s “asthma capitals.”

“The air that’s flowing into our state is already out of attainment with ozone standards. And our transportation sector is contributing, exacerbating those ozone and smog impacts because of vehicle exhaust,” Dykes said. “And we have many of our cities that are where we have communities living adjacent to major transportation corridors.”

Elicker noted that New Haven now has an Office of Climate and Sustainability run by Steven Winter, a former city alder who worked on Lamont’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for governor while a student at Yale.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said, “Clean air is critical, and it’s a non-partisan issue.”

While other measures have generated broader support, Hwang was the only Republican in the Senate to vote in 2022 for passage of the Connecticut Clean Air Act. Every House Republican was opposed.

Passage of the law was one of the victories that made the 2022 session a high point for environmentalists and Dykes. On climate change, the 2023 session that concluded in June was largely a bust.

The Lamont administration’s major bill died in committee. It would have given Dykes’s agency authority to designate greenhouse gas emission targets for specific sectors of the economy and levy penalties if they weren’t met. Opposition came from Republicans and the fossil fuel industry.

The 2035 all-electric deadline in the 2022 law is a mandate on automakers and will not ban the purchase or sale of used gas-powered vehicles in 2035. But in concert with federal policy and rules adopted or being adopted in another dozen states, the Connecticut regulations will reinforce the direction already set by makers of cars and trucks.

With the publication of the proposed regulations, Connecticut joins Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico in announcing an intention to adopt the new standards. Massachusetts, New York and Vermont already have finalized adoption of the rules.

“Connecticut and our neighboring states are taking decisive action to meet our climate pollution reduction targets,” Lamont said. “Cars and trucks represent the largest air pollution sector in our state, and these regulations are moving in coordination with commitments made by vehicle manufacturers to go all in on electrification.”

As Dykes spoke, Lamont glanced towards Toyota’s oddly named all-electric offering, the bZ4x sports-utility vehicle. The first two letters stand for “beyond zero” emissions, and X marks it as a cross-over. 

The version on the floor was the more expensive of the two basic versions: one a front-wheel drive car with a single electric motor; the other, with a motor on each axle and all-wheel drive. It carried a sticker price of $49,899 and had a range of more than 220 miles.

There are only 36,000 electric vehicles currently registered in Connecticut, but Dykes said a shift to EVs is underway: Registrations are up 20% since January and 42% over a year ago.

With federal funds, the state Department of Transportation is currently mapping a network of fast chargers on its interstates, with construction expected in 2024. Once completed, the federal funds can be used for chargers on secondary roads.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.