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November 29, 2023

CT Democrats pledge to keep on path to phasing out new gas cars

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Gov. Ned Lamont and other Democrats insist the fight to phase out gasoline-powered cars is not over.

With choreographed expressions of contrition and determination, Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders acknowledged Tuesday their failure to make a convincing case for phasing out sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 and pledged to quickly find a new path forward.

In a crowded room in the state Capitol, administration officials and members of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate offered a defense of the 2035 mandate— something that never came in October and November, when Republicans campaigned against it as bureaucratic overreach.

The display came a day after the Lamont administrations confirmed it did not have the votes for passage by the legislature’s bipartisan Regulation Review Committee of regulations that would have implemented a timetable for the transition to car and truck markets dominated by electric vehicles.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he scheduled a caucus of the House Democratic majority for Monday, a sign legislative leaders were contemplating passage of a yet-to-be-defined zero-emissions bill in special session before the General Assembly returns for its annual session in February.

Connecticut must remain committed to the 2035 deadline, but only if residents can be assured that the phase-out of gasoline-powered vehicles is practical and will not be financially ruinous to consumers, Ritter said.

“Once you get off target, once you don’t have a goal, you will surely fail,” Ritter said. “But we have to do more. We have to demonstrate to the Connecticut residents that this switch not only will save the environment, save lives and save our planet, but not leave you in a position where you can no longer afford a vehicle.”

Implicit in Ritter’s remarks was a suggestion that the Lamont administration and the legislature’s Democratic majorities had failed to make those important assurances to the public. 

Ritter, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas of East Hartford, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk joined the governor and Katie Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, to address what they insist is a setback, not a defeat.

The presence of the top legislative leaders was intended as a statement that Connecticut is not backing away from updated clean-air standards set by California and embraced by New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other states, despite the failure to adopt regulations necessary for Connecticut to join them.

“We know that the gasoline-powered car is certainly on its way out. We will have all electric vehicles in the future. And we want to make that future happen as soon as we can. We also have to make sure that it happens in an equitable way, not leaving any community behind,” Looney said.

Looney blamed the failure to adopt the regulations on Republicans, ignoring the role of members of his own caucus.

“The Republican Party, unfortunately, is the party of no, without thought; no, without a plan,” Looney said, contrasting them with the Democratic majorities. “We have to plan. We have to think. We’re responsible for the state.”

But the administration withdrew the regulations only after concluding that two Senate Democrats on the Regulation Review Committee, Cathy Osten of Sprague and Joan Hartley of Waterbury, were prepared to vote with all seven Republicans against the regulations. (Osten was among the two dozen lawmakers at the press conference, but she made no remarks.)

The committee has seven Democrats and seven Republicans. A tie vote at the meeting Tuesday would have allowed the regulations to take effect next month.

Like the Republicans, Osten and Hartley said they were concerned about the affordability of electric vehicles, the availability of charging stations and the ability of the electric grid in Connecticut to supply adequate electricity.

Standing just feet from Looney, Ritter rebuked those who dismissed the concerns raised by Osten, Hartley and the Republicans. 

“Our party sometimes has a wag-our-finger approach to individuals who may not always see it the same way,” Ritter said. “These are real concerns that can’t be just shooed away, they can’t be wished away. They have to be worked on.”

Ritter said his caucus has those same concerns, but he is confident they can be addressed.

One option is a bill that would endorse the 2035 timetable but require periodic reviews by the legislature about whether the EV market and infrastructure are sufficiently robust to meet the deadline. Such an approach, which had been privately suggested by some advocates, would assure lawmakers that the 2035 goal was realistic — or allow the state to change course.

“I think that’s what people need to know,” Ritter said.

Every state has two options: hewing to the California standards or the ones set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has set a less ambitious timetable for phasing out gas-powered cars.

Looney said the legislature should focus on a path forward, not a look at what went wrong.

“I don’t think there’s a need to point any fingers at those who did or did not advocate that effectively on this,” Looney said. “But I think what we need to point out is just that we now are in a better position to have an understanding of the key issues in this process.”

Republican leaders said later they felt vindicated.

rence is that, thank God, there’s Connecticut Republicans who are here being the voice of working- and middle-class families, of rural and urban communities, that have raised legitimate — and you’re hearing — they recognize these were legitimate concerns,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford.

“Certainly, I think moving forward, it was good to hear that they’re now going to start taking into consideration the affordability, the impact this is actually going to have on Connecticut residents. And we’re looking forward to that conversation,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford.

There was a surprise guest at the Democratic news conference: Steve Sullivan, the Eversource executive in charge of the utility’s Connecticut operations, whose presence at the invitation of the governor raised eyebrows. Eversource currently is battling utility regulators who serve at Lamont’s pleasure, complaining that a hostile regulatory environment is hobbling efforts to modernize the electric grid.

Jonathan Dach, the governor’s chief of staff, said Sullivan’s presence was intended to underscore the administration’s understanding that grid modernization is necessary to make the 2035 mandate achievable. Sullivan used the opportunity to double down on Eversource’s criticism of the regulators.

“Our customers and our residents all want the same thing: clean, reliable energy at an equitable cost. And the best path forward to achieve that is through a constructive regulatory environment,” Sullivan said. “A constructive regulatory environment enables a collaboration in the planning process, and a strategic partnership between the state and the utilities.”

Lamont did not disagree.

“Look, you have to be able to make the investments to make sure the power is there for the charging stations,” he said.

The administration adopted an “electric vehicle roadmap” in 2020 and a strategy to expand the availability of charging stations in 2022. The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority also has opened a docket on grid modernization.

But Sullivan said Connecticut lags other states.

Dykes, the commissioner behind the regulations, said the need to move away from internal combustion engines remains.

“Connecticut has some of the worst air quality in the country, and our kids in our vulnerable communities, especially environmental justice communities living near highways, industrial zones, are disproportionately experiencing asthma and respiratory illness, disruptive lives and high medical bills,” Dykes said.

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