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May 10, 2024

CT legislature ends session with no major climate change action – again


Connecticut’s environmental community awoke Thursday morning to yet another legislative session that took no substantial action on climate change.

Aside from some slight expansions for solar power and funding for some climate focused projects in the bonding package, other major climate bills failed — a tiny improvement from the previous session, which resulted in no climate action, period.

“I would give the session as far as the environment is concerned a C-minus,” said Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, which handled the two biggest bills.

Reaction from advocates was even more harsh.

“Appallingly, this session has turned out to be yet another failure for climate legislation and for Connecticut’s people, businesses, and future,” Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney with Save the Sound said in a statement. “Where once we were a leader, we are now a laggard, watching impotently as our neighboring states adopt milestone policies commensurate to the threat that climate change poses. Connecticut cannot continue to allow itself to be held hostage to a vocal minority of climate change deniers that reject the science, reject the evidence of our own eyes, and reject the clear desire of Connecticut’s residents for meaningful action on climate.”

“We have somehow failed to grasp the urgency of this situation that affects all of us —Republicans and Democrats. We are all affected. Our children are all affected. And that is the great sadness,” said Nathan Frohling, director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. “The way we’re going is we’re going in the opposite direction.”

The inaction comes in the wake of a year marked by devastating and expensive climate change-fueled rains and flooding, smoke from wildfires and periodic drought, and in advance of the most extreme Atlantic hurricane outlook that prediction organizations have ever issued.

“Guys my age say ‘look, the environment’s important but, you know, it’s a little expensive and I’ve got other priorities and China’s not doing it so why should I, right?’” said Gov. Ned Lamont, addressing the inaction at his post-session news conference on Thursday. “I think it’s costing the taxpayers every day in terms of flooding and resiliency.”

Lamont responded with two words when asked what would change the climate change conversation: “Young people,” he said.

Two significant climate change bills failed. One was focused on lowering greenhouse gas emissions, which a recent report showed continuing to rise in the state. The other focused on resiliency, dealing with the already occurring impacts from climate change.

The GHG-reduction bill was an eight-month effort led by Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, vice-chair of the Environment Committee, who is not running for re-election, after the failure of her climate change legislation the year before.

Palm’s bill declared a climate crisis in the state, but mostly was designed as a pro-business package with multiple provisions that incentivized companies to take climate action. It also set up processes to explore greater use of heat pumps and less use of natural gas in addition to other techniques for reducing emissions.

It passed the House, without Republican support, after hours of intense debate that included denials by some House Republicans that climate change is occurring. But it was sacrificed in a legislative deal in the Senate for another bill that would have provided state aide for strikers. That bill, which passed, is expected to be vetoed by the governor.

Palm, angry enough that Republicans — normally business-friendly — seemed intent on killing a bill business supported, was baffled at the disconnect between the climate change reality the state faces and the repeated lack of action by her legislative colleagues.

“The disconnect is not in the real world. It’s inside the Capitol building,” she said. “I’ll tell you where the disconnect is not — it is not in the minds young people. It is not in the minds of environmentalists. It’s not in the minds of the health care community, which is devastated.”

She said the young people she worked with on the legislation are enraged about climate change. In kind of a negative silver lining, it is what’s motivating for them.

“What broke my heart last night, my own son said ‘Well, yeah Ma, I’m not a bit surprised. I know how hard you worked on this, but really, nobody my age believes any more that government really represents us,’” she said. “Now how do I explain that to my own kid? So yeah, where’s the disconnect? You tell me.”

Gresko said he felt bad for Palm and had gone to bat for her with Senate Republicans trying to cut a deal. But at the end of a session, things turn into what he called “middle school for adults.”

“You’re at the mercy of, of that,” he said. “It’s discouraging, and I don’t want to deny it.”

The resiliency bill, also in the Environment Committee, was proposed by the governor. It would have set up frameworks for municipalities to take on resiliency projects themselves — for the most part voluntarily, not as a mandate.

It was wide-ranging bill with everything from open space preservation to hazard mitigation and evacuation plans, fund reserves for climate impact work, zoning regulation changes geared to climate issues, a variety of monitoring practices for critical infrastructure, and more.

But the biggest portion of the bill — fully one-third of it — authorized municipalities to create taxing districts for the purpose of providing funds for resiliency projects.

The open space portion did wind up in another piece of legislation that did pass. The rest of the bill never made it to the floor.

Small solar victories

More successful was the solar legislation, HB-5232, though it was vastly scaled back from its original form to just allow for greater adoption of solar canopies — the kind of solar installation that might go over parking lots or other outdoor areas. It also allowed for slight expansion and continuation for the non-residential and community solar programs.

A component of the governor’s solar for schools bill also made it through in the bonding package, though the amount of solar it allows for is small.

“There is some irony,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport and co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. “I felt that I had to compromise so much in 5232 that I was disappointed, but at least it passed.”

Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Connecticut Solar and Storage Association, called the final legislation “disemboweled” compared to the original version.

“We’re doing studies on top of studies on the same issue,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point you can either solve the problem or you can study the problem. And this year the legislature chose the latter.”

He called Steinberg a “bulldog” on solar.

“But he’s just one guy and he is surrounded in large part by lawmakers who seem uninterested or unwilling to explain to their constituents the net benefit of the state’s solar.”

Other environmental action and inaction

Among the few bills that passed:

  • One that begins the process of banning PFAS in certain products.
  • One that restricts the use of herbicides in rail corridors.
  • A bill that allows DEEP to take greater and faster action against dangerous dams.
  • A bill that gives DEEP more latitude in procuring clean energy, including longer contracts for offshore wind, nuclear power and hydro.

Among bills that failed:

  • A bill that would have made battery manufacturers responsible for end of life disposal and recycling. The battery industry asked Connecticut legislators to do this. The bill passed the House unanimously, but a threatened filibuster kept it off the Senate floor.
  • A waste bill that would mandate the separation of food waste and conduct a waste characterization study to update the decade-old study the state currently uses. In the end, all it got was $10 million through the bonding package to continue the food waste pilot program begun a few years ago.

Looking ahead

There’s already talk of trying again next year, though there are concerns, especially from Steinberg, who worries that the state’s hyper-focus on utility rates threatens to cancel out other considerations —especially for needed grid investments in transmission and the considerable technological upgrades available.

“I’m pretty disappointed as the energy chair because we accommodated a concern about rates and basically avoided those things that were going to have such an impact,” he said. “I can’t do them indefinitely. I will be doing a disservice to the people of Connecticut if I was constantly saying ‘your rates are high so we can’t do anything.’

“I’m concerned that I will come back next year, if I’m reelected, facing the same issue which is we can’t do anything that even intimates that we would raise ratepayer rates.”

Gresko, from the Environment committee, plans to bring back Palm’s bill next year in some form — obviously without her. And he’d like to run it in April with plenty of time for floor debate.

“There’s the strategy, that we do it one year and everybody gets a flavor of it, and then you come back next year with the bill basically 80%, 85% cooked already. So you’re not doing these last minute changes, which freaks everybody out. And you come back again next session,” he said.

“This was a leadership priority bill in 2024. You can’t wash your hands of it. You can’t say ‘Well, I did in 2024,’” he said. “No. Since this was a leadership priority, well you got to, in my opinion, follow it through to the end. And that means doing it as a leadership priority bill in 2025. Hopefully. I’ll ask nicely.”

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