By Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org
Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly ramped up their opposition Wednesday to regulations that would commit Connecticut to phasing out sales of most new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, a goal intended to reinforce market trends toward zero-emission vehicles.
The presentation comes two weeks before the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee is to consider regulations implementing the latest revisions to California’s clean air standards, which require manufacturers to curb emissions by weaning the new vehicle market off gasoline from 2027 through 2035.
While the regulations proposed by the Democratic administration of Gov. Ned Lamont stem from a law passed in 2004 under a Republican governor, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, says they reflect the desires of “unelected bureaucrats.”
“The majority wants to believe that California is better for Connecticut than Connecticut. Nobody represents us in Sacramento,” Kelly said.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said Republicans are staking out a policy position, not framing a wedge issue for the 2024 legislation session or r-eelection cycle.
“It’s certainly going to be an issue that continues to be on people’s minds, but this is not about the introduction of the 2024 campaign,” Candelora said. “This is about protecting the residents of Connecticut and providing them choice.”
Adoption of the regulations is uncertain, at best. The 14-member Regulation Review Committee is unusual in that the majority and minority parties have equal representation, meaning that a negative vote by a single Democrat and the promised unanimous opposition by Republicans would kill adoption.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a member of the committee who expressed doubts about the regulations in a Connecticut Mirror interview last month, said Wednesday, “I’m still less than enthused.”
California link uncontroversial when adopted
The 2004 law committing Connecticut to the California emission standards for cars was not controversial, with unanimous passage in the Senate and by a vote of 143-1 in the House. But a 2022 law expanding the commitment to light- and medium-duty trucks had only a single Republican supporter.
Republicans insisted Wednesday they remain committed to clean air, even as issues of climate change and decarbonization have became sharply partisan in Hartford and in Washington.
“I think it goes without saying that everybody here this morning loves Connecticut, loves the beauty of our state, loves its environment,” Kelly said. “And we all want clean air. We want better communities. And we are not opposed to those issues. The question, however, is how do we get there? We think that choice rests with the General Assembly. The administration believes it rests with the bureaucrats.”
The administration’s position is that the regulations offered by Commissioner Katie Dykes of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection do reflect the will of the General Assembly, as expressed in the 2004 and 2022 laws.
The Republicans say setting a goal of eliminating new sales of gasoline-powered vehicles, whether or not it was authorized by the 2004 and 2022 laws, is a major policy decision that deserves another look by the full General Assembly.
Market forces driving switch to EVs
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he favors passage of the regulations, but believes the new car market in Connecticut will be dominated by electric vehicles by 2035 regardless of whether the regulations are adopted, simply because the manufacturers will tailor their offerings to the huge markets of California and New York.
New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are among the states complying with California’s advanced clean car standards.
“The shift to zero-emission vehicles is already here,” Lamont said. “Consumers and car companies are both embracing the change, with manufacturers significantly increasing electric vehicle sales and families choosing to purchase those vehicles in increasing numbers.
“Following the legislature’s direction and our neighboring states’ decision to adopt the latest California emissions standards will help ensure a predictable, orderly transition to a cleaner and healthier future,” the governor said.
Concerns by trucking, bus industries
Ritter said the trucking industry has raised legitimate concerns about the feasibility of shifting to zero-emission trucks by 2035. So far, electric long-haul trucks have not proven practical. Diesel engines can be adapted to run on clean hydrogen that would meet the new standard, but the infrastructure for hydrogen fueling does not exist.
Dennis Lyons, who oversees the coach and tour group business for DATTCO, a New Britain bus company, said electric vehicles make sense for its school bus business, with relatively short distances and ample time to recharge between morning and afternoon runs.
One of its clients is requiring all-electric buses next year. Another has shifted from buses powered by diesel to propane, which is a fossil fuel but produces fewer emissions.
But Lyons said they are impractical for its coach business: The distances are far too great, and the batteries are so large that the coaches could not accommodate luggage.
Can state’s electric grid handle charging demands?
Connecticut Republicans also questioned whether the electric grid, as well as the network of charging stations, would be sufficiently robust by 2035.
“Right now our electric grid can’t handle if every car were electric. We don’t have the capacity,” Kelly said.
He and others said there is no map on how Connecticut is going to get there.
Actually, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority acted in 2019 to adopt a framework for modernizing the grid, though the utilities have complained that PURA has shown little sign of approving rates that would allow the utility companies to make the necessary massive capital investments.
Republicans said they are wary of the cost of a shift to EVs or what it would require in grid modernizations.
“I see it as a kind of a reverse Robin Hood, because we have to subsidize the vehicles, we have to subsidize the grid,” said state Rep. Patrick Callahan, the ranking House Republican on the Environment Committee. “And it’s forcing our middle and lower class to bear the brunt of the cost. And until we have a real system where we can get cheap, clean electricity in Connecticut, you’re simply trading tailpipe for smokestack.”
Connecticut generates about 95 percent of its electricity from plants fueled by nuclear power or natural gas. It no longer burns coal.
Policies en route to make phase-out possible
Charles Rothenberger, a climate-and-energy lawyer with the environmental group Save The Sound, said even in states that burn coal to generate electricity, a switch to electric vehicles still offers a net gain in cleaner air.
He said Republicans were engaging in fear-mongering, especially when they suggest that gas-powered cars would disappear in 2035.
The regulations only would apply to new vehicles sold by manufacturers and would not bar the continued use of gas vehicles or their purchase in Connecticut. Also, plug-in hybrids, which burn gas after their batteries are expended, are defined as zero-emission vehicles under the California standards.
Rothenberger said the concerns raised by Republicans, including unavailability of easy access to overnight charging by homeowners or renters who have no off-street parking, are being addressed by the state.
The Republicans say there is no guarantee the current planning will produce the necessary infrastructure by 2035.
Connecticut is one of 17 states that chose to adopt California’s emission standards over the more permissive federal rules, an option that reflects the policy initiatives of two Republican icons, former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, and a time when environmental issues crossed party lines. It is one of nine states that have either adopted or are in the process of adopting the 2035 deadline.
Reagan was governor of California in 1967 when the state created the California Air Resources Board to set emission standards and curb the choking smog generated by the state’s car culture. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and agreed to a provision that let California’s older rules stand and gave other states the option of adopting them.
Former President Donald J. Trump attempted to end the so-called California waiver.