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Connecticut regulators seek more authority to move the needle on climate goals

As Connecticut struggles to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is seeking greater authority to speed progress on decarbonization. 

Legislation approved by the Senate Environment Committee would charge the agency with establishing emissions reduction “sub-targets” in individual economic sectors, such as building heating and cooling, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution and service. The agency would also be authorized to write the regulations necessary to hit those sub-targets. 

Developing a comprehensive regulatory plan is imperative if the state is to make significant progress on meeting statutorily mandated climate targets, said Commissioner Katie Dykes. 

“Piecemeal approaches are less efficient and insufficient to meet the scale of the climate challenge,” she said. 

“Our neighbors in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York have adopted laws similar to the proposed bill,” she added, “that allow their state agencies to take a broader look at emissions reduction opportunities and to work with their stakeholders, including public health experts, the business community, and others, to craft regulatory programs that are more effective and efficient.”

But the bill is generating considerable pushback from industries that view it as overreach. The Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, representing fuel oil and gasoline distributors, the Propane Gas Association of New England, WIN Waste Innovations, a waste services company, and the Home Builders and Remodelers Association all submitted written testimony in opposition. 

Critics raise concern about costs

At a March public hearing on the bill, Peter Brennan, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, representing convenience retailers and transportation fuel distributors, equated the bill to a “power grab” that enables DEEP to sidestep the legislative process.

“It just seems that, you know, DEEP wants all this new power, anything they do with it is going to raise costs on our consumers, your constituents, anybody in the state; and they want to do it without getting legislative approval first,” he said. 

He noted that the regulatory measures DEEP would be authorized to adopt include “market-based compliance mechanisms,” possibly in partnership with other states. That might leave the door open for the agency to revive the Transportation Climate Initiative, the proposed regional carbon-pricing plan known as TCI that was battled back by a variety of interests two years ago, Brennan said. 

Commissioner Dykes noted that any regulatory plan would still be subject to legislative approval via the Regulation Review Committee. 

And regarding TCI, she said the agency is more “laser-focused” on taking full advantage of the federal climate funds available to cut transportation emissions by getting more electric vehicles on the road, making transit investments, and improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. 

‘We’ve got a lot to do’

The release last week of the state’s latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory highlighted the need for more urgency around emission reductions. While the state has made some progress overall, emissions from the transportation and residential building sectors remain stubbornly high. 

The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed 15 years ago, called for emission reductions of 10% below 1990 levels by 2020, and then 45% below 2001 levels by 2030, and 80% by 2050. 

The latest inventory shows that the state has met the first target. In 2019, overall emissions were down 13.9% from 1990 levels, largely due to progress in cleaning up the electric power sector. 

Transportation emissions, however, representing 40% of the state’s climate pollution, remain at 1990 levels. The residential sector has dropped by 10%. 

“We’ve got seven years and a lot to do” to hit the 2030 reduction target, Dykes said during a presentation announcing the report. 

That to-do list could include increasing access to mass transit, finding ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled, prioritizing transit-oriented development, adopting net-zero-energy building codes, and taking advantage of the federal funding now available to retrofit existing homes with electric-powered heat pumps, she said. 

Nathan Frohling, director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy, said DEEP needs greater flexibility to act if the state is going to meet its emission reduction mandates. 

“We’re not going to get there if every time DEEP wants to reach a goal they have to go back to the legislature to get a bill passed,” Frohling said. “There’s a large consensus in the state that climate change is real and really serious. I think people really want us to do the work we need to do to get to a good outcome on climate change.” 

The bill also includes a number of other measures that would expand DEEP’s reach over emissions. 

The definition of “direct emissions” under the state’s air pollution control statute would be much more broadly written to include sources burning heating or transportation fuels, any building stack or vent, any distribution system, and any residential, commercial, institutional, industrial or agricultural waste management or manufacturing process. 

Emissions associated with selling or distributing transportation or heating fuels would be added to the definition of “indirect emissions.”

And applicants applying for a permit for fossil-fuel-fired electricity generating units would have to show the feasibility and cost of replacing at least some of the generating capacity with renewable energy or storage. The commissioner would decide whether to require the non-emitting capacity.

The legislation has been referred by the Senate to the Committee on Appropriations; if approved it will go to the full Senate after that.

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