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January 22, 2024

Crucial week for Lamont and effort to salvage transition to EVs

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Gov. Ned Lamont went to a Toyota dealership in July to publicize his administration's commitment to promoting zero-emission vehicles.

A pivotal week for a contentious environmental issue opens today with Gov. Ned Lamont privately meeting with members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, a legislative voting bloc crucial to the administration’s hopes of reviving regulations that would promote a shift to zero-emission vehicles over the next decade.

Facing rejection by a bipartisan legislative committee in November, Lamont reluctantly withdrew proposed regulations that would keep Connecticut in compliance with the latest California emissions standards, which call for a phase-out of the sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.

The Republican minority in the General Assembly led the campaign to kill the proposed regulations, but today’s meeting is a recognition of broader skepticism about, among other things, Connecticut’s ability to build out an adequate charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Caucus members, who hold one quarter of the seats in the Senate Democratic majority and one-third in House Democratic majority, say they want assurances that urban constituents will be accommodated in a shift to electric vehicles that, at least for now, presents financial and practical challenges for lower-income motorists and apartment dwellers.

“These are legitimate concerns that folks have, so I want to have a conversation about those things, how we are addressing or not addressing them,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a caucus member meeting with Lamont. “I think that this is a really important conversation. And I think ultimately, we probably do need to get where he’s trying to go.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said support by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus would increase the chances of calling a special session by month’s end to pass a bill that would affirm Connecticut’s commitment to the 2035 deadline with certain safeguards, such as requiring another vote in three years and a bigger financial commitment to infrastructure.

The second vote would be intended to make certain what Lamont had insisted was implicit: Connecticut will have an opportunity to step away from the 2035 deadline if market forces — namely EV prices and battery performance — and the availability of charging stations indicate the state is not ready.

“I think that we’re willing, as anybody else is willing, to try to come to a compromise and a consensus,” said Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, vice chair of the caucus. “We know we don’t want to fall completely behind the standards. But we also want to make sure that we have time to create more charging infrastructure, let technology catch up, so there can be some cheaper vehicles for folks to buy.”

Felipe will be attending the meeting with Lamont, as will the chair, Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford. Miller could not be reached for comment.

Julia Bergman, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said the meeting is part of the governor’s efforts to keep Connecticut on a path toward zero-emission vehicles. He wants to hear and address their concerns, she said.

“He very much thinks this is in the legislature’s court right now, but he has been reaching out all along” to various elements of the legislature, Bergman said. “This is a very important issue to him.”

Adhering to the California standards would not mean an end to gasoline-powered vehicles. It would not force gas cars off the road nor prohibit sales of used gas-powered cars. Also, sales of new plug-in hybrids, which have gas engines, still would be permitted after 2035.

Lamont proposed two sets of regulations relating to the California clean-air standards, one of two regulatory structures open to the states. The other are the more permissive federal standards, which also are nudging vehicle manufacturers towards a zero-emission future, if less forcefully.

Connecticut committed to the California standards in 2004 with a law passed nearly unanimously. Republicans argued that a ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered cars was a significant policy change that should be subject to a vote of the full General Assembly, not the legislature’s bipartisan Regulation Review Committee.

One set of regulations would have essentially updated existing emissions levels for cars and light trucks by requiring that new vehicles sold in the state must have zero emissions beginning in 2035. The other was for medium and heavy duty vehicles, authorized by a law passed in 2022.

The governor withdrew the regulations when it appeared that all seven Republicans and two of the seven Democrats on the committee were prepared to reject them. Republicans say the administration was embracing the transition to EVs without a plan for getting there.

Actually, the administration published a “policy framework” in 2020 for electric vehicle adoption and a strategic plan in 2022 for expanding public electric charging stations. Last year, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority launched a nine-year plan to build a system of chargers.

But skeptics question whether electric vehicles are practical for everyone, pointing to the experience of EV owners in Chicago during the recent bout of extreme cold, when batteries ran low and competition for public chargers was intense. The range of EVs can drop by about 40% when the temperature drops to 20 degrees, and charging takes longer. 

One NBC report featured a frustrated urban Uber driver who said, “I’ll be getting a gas vehicle ASAP.”

Ritter said Connecticut has been allocated $60 million in federal funding for a system of public chargers on heavily traveled routes, but he anticipates that lawmakers may seek supplemental state funding ensuring the availability of chargers in urban residential areas.

The full House Democratic caucus met last week for a nearly all-day session on a potential agenda for the 2024 session, which opens on Feb. 7, as well as a discussion about the clean-air regulations and the possibility of a special session to address them, possibly on Jan. 30.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said his caucus would have a similar discussion this week.

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