An electric vehicle charging. / Photo by Paul Stern for CTMirror.org

By Mark Pazniokas and Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

A majority of the General Assembly’s Regulation Review Committee was poised to vote Tuesday to kill regulations prohibiting new gasoline-powered vehicle sales by 2035, forcing advocates and the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont to open talks on a new plan for passage by the full General Assembly in 2024.

Jonathan Dach, the governor’s chief of staff, said Monday that the administration reluctantly made the decision to withdraw the regulations after being told that opponents on the bipartisan committee had the votes to kill them and not merely reject them without prejudice, an action that would allow a later attempt at passage.

“The choice open to us is let them be killed or pull them,” Dach said. “We will pull them.”

“I was very hopeful we could get ‘rejection without prejudice’ so we could carry on the discussions,” said state Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, the committee co-chair, after briefing Dach. “It’s disappointing.”

Lamont and legislators will hold a press conference Tuesday to outline an alternative: Have the General Assembly pass a bill keeping Connecticut in line with the timetable established by California and adopted by New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and other states to phase out new sales of most gas-powered vehicles.

Other options for an EV future

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said one possibility was emulating New Mexico and Colorado, states that endorsed a transition to zero-emission vehicles, but included a commitment before then to assess their states’ progress toward establishing the necessary electric infrastructure.

“This might give people comfort,” Ritter said.

Colorado adopted the California standards that progressively limit new gas-car sales with a major proviso: It would follow California only through 2032, then it would live by the lower federal clean air standards, the other option available to states.

In April, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed federal emission standards requiring that 67 percent of new light-duty vehicles and 25 percent of new heavy-duty trucks sold in the United States are electric or otherwise powered by zero-emission engines by 2032.

A shift to the EPA goals would be welcome, said state Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, a member of Regulation Review Committee and opponent of the proposed regulations.

“This is what we’ve been saying right along: The EPA regulations are just more realistic,” Klarides-Ditria said. Of the California goal of 100 percent by 2035, she said, “We all want to move in that direction, but it’s too aggressive.”

More flexibility going forward

Without committing to a specific proposal, Dach said the administration supports the legislative efforts to keep Connecticut moving toward zero-emission vehicles. He was unsure if Lamont would attend the news conference.

Ritter said the administration’s withdrawal of the regulations give legislators flexibility. If the regulations were disapproved by the committee, the legislature only could vote to overturn the panel, not revise the regulations.

On the committee’s agenda Tuesday were two sets of regulations that would implement revisions to the California clean air standards followed by 17 states, including Connecticut and many neighbors.

The car regulations would have essentially updated existing emissions levels by requiring that all new vehicles sold in the state must have zero emissions beginning in 2035. The other is for medium and heavy duty vehicles — trucks. Beginning in 2035, 40  to 75 percent of new vehicle sales, depending on the class of vehicle, must be zero emissions.

Neither action affects existing vehicles, the sale of used vehicles, or prohibits zero-emission vehicles that are not electric. It also allows plug-in hybrid cars that have gasoline backups.

California standards adopted long ago

Both follow the standards set by California, which the Connecticut legislature approved two decades ago for cars. Under rules of the federal Clean Air Act going back to its inception in 1970, states have been able to choose one of two sets of emissions regulations for motor vehicles: those set by the EPA or more stringent ones set by California.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a Regulation Review Committee member, had made clear for weeks that her vote was in jeopardy given her concern about the impact on agriculture in her largely rural district, as well as the cost of electric vehicles and the ability of the electric grid to meet the greater demand.

Osten said that some of the complications faced by Norway, where 87 percent of new car sales are EVs, also gave her pause. Osten said she was struck by the cost of subsidies, such as tax credits, and the disproportionate benefit on wealthier buyers.

She declined to say Monday if she had informed leaders she was a hard no, but others said the decision to withdraw them was based on a belief that Osten and state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, would vote with the Republicans in opposition.

Hartley confirmed she would have voted against the regulations, despite a promise by Commissioner Katie Dykes of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to convene a working group to oversee Connecticut’s infrastructure progress before the 2035 deadline.

“I said, ‘No, let’s work on this first,’ ” Hartley said.

Dykes could not be reached. She is scheduled to join Lamont, Democratic legislative leaders and others at a press conference Tuesday to respond and review next steps.

Hartley said she supports the transition to zero-emission vehicles as a necessary step toward protecting the environment, but she has questions about the state’s readiness and the impact on lower-income, urban constituents.

“I believe in it and endorse it,” Hartley said. But she added, “I represent a city of 116,000 with a median income of $42,000.”

The Republican minority, which has offered similar objections, is empowered under Connecticut’s unusual bipartisan system of reviewing and approving regulations.

Unlike the regulatory framework of the federal government and many states, Connecticut gives the legislature veto power over regulations, albeit one that is supposed to turn on a narrow question: Does the regulation implement legislation?

Attorney General William Tong said the proposed regulations meet the test of legal sufficiency. 

Setting aside the proposal called “unconscionable”

Charles Rothenberger, a climate-and-energy lawyer with the environmental group Save the Sound, said Monday he found it “difficult, if not impossible, to make any logical sense” of the failure to adopt the regulations.

“It’s really an embarrassment all the way around when it comes to this,” Rothenberger said. “If in fact the committee is not voting on these regulations tomorrow, it is really unconscionable.”

By rejecting the regulations, Connecticut is stepping away from two decades of progress that included adopting a low-emission vehicles program that set higher standards on gas and diesel engines that power cars and trucks, he said.

“We are walking away from our longtime partners in the effort to clean up our air and protect public health in terms of Massachusetts in New York and Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia,” Rothenberger said. “And we are declaring that we are content to align ourselves with the standards that are good enough for Alabama, and Mississippi, and West Virginia.”

Skeptics applaud decision

While the regulations proposed by the Democratic Lamont administration stem from a law passed in 2004 under a Republican governor, Republicans said the 2035 deadline for transitioning to zero-emission vehicles was a public policy change that most lawmakers could not have foreseen two decades ago.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, a Regulation Review member, complained at a press conference two weeks ago that 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.

On Monday, he said, “I think common sense prevailed. I do applaud the governor for withdrawing the regs, and I think this is what happens when we take issues from underneath the Capitol dome and go across Connecticut and bring issues to the people.”

Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, a trade group that represents gasoline and heating oil distributors, applauded the withdrawal of the regulations, if cautiously.

“This is victory for consumers who would have paid a big price tag for the state’s efforts to ban gas-powered cars and trucks in the future. However, the battle may not be over,” Herb said. “It’s unclear what could happen next, but CEMA will continue to be vigilant in our opposition to this reckless policy. This is too much too fast, and we are not ready for an EV-only future.”