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Advocates searching for any kind of legislative win on environment in Connecticut

Steam billows from a tall stack near the power block facility at the MIRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford’s South Meadows.
Cle Poisson
CT Mirror
Steam billows from a tall stack near the power block facility at the MIRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford’s South Meadows.

The notion that the 2023 legislative session would produce blockbuster policies to help the state address climate change or other major environmental and energy issues was largely downplayed from the start.

As the session enters its final weeks, however, even those reduced expectations are looking iffy.

“Not a lot to start with, and we’ve gone downhill from there,” said Nathan Frohling of the Nature Conservancy. “So far, right now, this looks to be dismal.”

That’s if you can figure out what’s going on at all.

A couple of major bills are still out there, but they’re in something akin to a parlor game of guess-what’s-in-them. There are also a few smaller measures traveling below the radar that could wind up as the stars of the session.

The biggest major climate bill, S.B. 1145, is dead — for sure.

RIP big climate, welcome little climate

That bill would have given the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection the power to designate greenhouse gas emission targets for specific sectors of the economy and levy penalties — some of them as much as $25,000 a day — if they weren’t met. Opponents, largely from the ranks of Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, objected to concentrating so much power with the DEEP commissioner.

To combat the measure, they rolled out their winning strategy from a couple of years ago with the transportation and climate initiative and called the penalties a “tax.”

And boom — it was dead.

But there’s still a little bill — just about the only bill left focused strictly on climate. And it has the potential to be far more powerful than its two pages would make it appear.

Offered by Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, co-vice chair of the Environment Committee, the bill starts the process of developing a statewide so-called decarbonization roadmap.

This is not a new concept. Other states have them, including Massachusetts, put in place in 2020 by a Republican administration, and Colorado since 2021. Even the federal government has a targeted plan for the industrial sector that was put in place last September.

Rep. Christine Palm checking the vote in the House chambers.
Kathleen Megan
CT Mirror
Rep. Christine Palm checking the vote in the House chambers.

The rationale for a roadmap is this: Connecticut has all kinds of climate goals, mandates and lists of ideas, like those from the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, plus all kinds of metrics and data. But they’re sprinkled around various departments, not coordinated with each other and, in the cases of the overall statewide mandates for greenhouse gas emission reduction and a zero-carbon grid, not on pace to meet their required levels.

Instead of coming to the legislature every year for some new policy or to update an existing one, a roadmap would set policies with benchmarks and other measurable progress points across multiple agencies that could be followed over the short and long terms.

“I’m really tired of waiting for the state to get its act together about our carbon emissions,” said Palm, who whittled down her initial bill to a bare-bones proposal. “We said we have these goals there in statute, but we are nowhere near meeting them. And my question is to DEEP, to the governor’s office, to my colleagues, to advocates, to everybody: How do we get there? We need a map.”

The legislation would require DEEP, by July 2025, to come up with a roadmap, with various options and sources for funding, especially from the federal government.

“We’ll figure out if we can afford it. We’ll figure out if it’s reasonable. We’ll figure out if it’s effective,” Palm said. “But it’s their job to say to us, here’s how we get from A to Z. We haven’t even gotten from A to B right now.”

Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield and ranking House member on the Environment Committee, wasn’t ready to comment on the bill itself, but he offered an array of broad questions.

“How much is this going to affect your climate change agenda?” he said. “By investing all this money and time, what’s the actual difference going to be? What’s the difference going to be to the average consumer? Are we going to notice a difference? There’s so many arbitrary things attached to these goals.”

Another small bill that is still alive would again raise the caps on the state’s three solar programs — something the legislature did just last session. It may represent just the kind of action a roadmap could handle without having to come back for another piece of legislation year after year.

Frohling said he thought the roadmap could become the most important climate bill of the session.

There will be a lot of people who will say, ‘Holy crap, I have to do that?’ The answer is yes. If you want to get to zero carbon; if you want to keep our promise to future generations, yes.

“We wouldn’t be the first to do it, which is not the main reason,” he said. “But it’s worth noting Massachusetts, our neighbor, has done it, and it’s been very helpful. It’s been generative to the overall process. What’s also good is it’s not regulations. It’s a roadmap.”

While it doesn’t actually do anything, it tees up future decisions and a lot of work down the line, Palm said.

“There will be a lot of people who will say, ‘Holy crap, I have to do that?’” Palm said. “The answer is yes. If you want to get to zero carbon; if you want to keep our promise to future generations, yes. We will have to suck it up and change our ways. So I am expecting people to balk at the recommendations. If they balk at the bill itself, which says we need recommendations, they’re in worse shape than I thought.”

The really big energy bill

The energy bill known as SB7 — which is really a consumer bill, not one that focuses on the climate or environmental aspects of energy — is something of a black hole with few privy to what’s in or out.

It started as a one-line place holder: “To promote a more equitable and transparent energy market that works in the best interest of Connecticut’s consumers of energy.” It was last seen publicly as 24 sections over 24 pages, containing language designed to hold utility companies accountable for power losses and realign how those companies are awarded payment for their primary responsibility: electricity distribution.

In fact, that realignment has been underway for four years through the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. New legislation would likely reinforce PURA’s work and add a layer of oversight.

Items from other pieces of legislation may also be finding their ways into SB7, including term limits for PURA commissioners and re-instituting a three-member panel — the third shift between three and five members since 2011.

“We’re working on the details with every group,” texted Sen. Norman Needleman, D-Essex, and co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. He has been pushing these sorts of consumer changes since Hurricane Isaias strafed Connecticut nearly three years ago, leaving swaths of the state without power amid a very slow utility response.

“We’re all negotiating in good faith, and we want to make it a good, pro-consumer bill that’s bipartisan,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, Senate ranking member on the committee. “But we still have a lot of work to do on it.”

Fazio did say the bill already contains some of the items in the Republican energy bill he co-sponsored, including utility bill transparency and decoupling rates from sales to make them more performance-based.

The really, really big waste bill

The original waste bill was some 20 sections across 44 pages designed to overhaul the disarray that is trash disposal in Connecticut, especially in the aftermath of last summer’s closure of the MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford.

But it may wind up as only a couple of key provisions — if it even makes it to a vote.

At the moment, no one’s really sure what’s in it, even those who have been involved in negotiations over the bill.

“We’ll probably end up with some sort of extension of our food scrap diversion program. That’s what would be my No. 1,” said Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the Environment Committee.

Gresko said he also anticipates there will be a provision to create some sort of Connecticut Waste Authority to replace MIRA and a process through which the state will eventually figure out what to build to handle municipal solid waste, instead of shipping much of it out of state, as is happening now.

“We have to figure out where the funding for that is going to come from. That’s part of the discussion now in the meetings that we’re having,” Gresko said. “This is going to be a multi-year process. This is why I’m kind of stressing the fact that we need to start doing something this session even if it’s just to lay the groundwork so that time starts working for us as opposed to not.”

While House Speaker Matt Ritter indicated about a week ago that those were the provisions he expected to go forward, the leadership and committee chairs are mindful that minority Republicans have the ability to use hours of debate to keep legislation they don’t like, but don’t have the votes to defeat, off the floor. They could also strip down a mega-bill like the waste bill to its most essential moving parts.

So while all parties agree getting heavy, wet food waste out of the waste stream would go a long way towards fixing the problem, it’s not clear what form a food waste provision will take. Most agree the hit-and-miss small grants for food waste pilot projects that have been underway are not enough. But others balk at the kind of mandate in the original bill — that all municipalities have a food waste separation plan by 2028. Expansion of the existing commercial food waste separation was also in the original bill.

“I don’t know where it’s going,” said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “I do think it needs to be a dual conversation. I do think looking at food waste is one key.”

The other, he said, is to be looking at the kind of zero-emission technology used in Europe and elsewhere. In the meantime, he said, the state should invest money in upgrading the existing burn plants to reduce their emissions and keep them online until new technology is available and food waste diversion is fully in place. Will that be in the waste legislation? Don’t ask him.

“It’s been very frustrating, because I’ve watched this now for six years and even longer,” Candelora said. “Our waste program is being dictated by inertia as opposed to policy. And so it’s very frustrating to watch, time and again, our legislature do nothing on this.”

Gresko also points to the late filing of the waste bill — more than a month after the session started. And he faults a process in which legislation is often developed in what he called an echo chamber.

“And then you unveil it to the world, and everyone freaks out, and then it’s like, well, ‘I did my job,’” he said. “And it’s dropped in my lap, and I gotta figure it out within two months. So you know, it gets frustrating after a while.”

DEEP, which developed the bill for the governor’s office, would not agree to an interview, instead providing this statement: “DEEP looks forward to continued discussions on the Governor’s Bill with members of the General Assembly to provide a path to self-sufficiency, one that helps residents reduce solid waste disposal costs, and is more in-line with the state’s Waste Management Hierarchy.”

Likely lost in the process, sources said, will be a provision for extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging, in which product producers would be responsible for the end-of-life disposal of packaging and its cost. Callahan said he would not support that, arguing it would increase the cost of those products involved.

But it would have been Kim O’Rourke’s top priority. She’s been recycling coordinator in Middletown for 30 years, and she was among the first municipalities to run a food waste diversion pilot project.

“When you talk about food waste, you’re talking behavior change. And here’s the difference,” she said. “EPR for packaging is not behavior change. It’s changing the system.”

But did anyone ask her? No.

“I certainly wish that people would call me up and ask for my advice,” she said. “I am definitely the boots on the ground here. And I do feel like that message does not get to the full masses at the Capitol.”

Two separate, more targeted EPR bills are still alive: One for tires, which has failed in previous years, looked to have a pretty clear shot this year. At the moment, however, it is facing industry pushback, and municipalities that often contend with illegal tire dumping are scrambling with lawmakers to get it on the floor for a vote.

Another EPR bill for smoke detectors is just a study to figure out the best method for disposal.

It’s all been frustrating for Samantha Dynowski of Sierra Club, who’s also been following the waste legislation. “We proactively reach out to try and get updates but everything’s been pretty opaque recently,” she said.

But if the core of what finally comes out of the legislative session is a food waste bill, she’s OK with that.

“That is actually a huge, huge important step forward,” she said. “It would go a long way to solving the problem, and it’s a win. It’s a win for everybody. It’s a win for municipalities, win for the environment.”

But it’s not guaranteed yet. There may still be questions about how to handle food waste in multi-family buildings and low-income areas — in other words, in places other than single-family homes owned by higher-income people.

So the potential failure of the waste bill is still a concern.

“Oh, I’ve been in the building for a long time, so yeah, I’m concerned,” Gresko said. “But I’m confident that something that everyone can agree on will come from this, and then we will take another step at it next session.”

Frohling of the Nature Conservancy was a little less sanguine on climate issues more broadly.

“I think one of the things that we’re going to need to do is to hold the legislature’s feet to the fire,” he said. “We don’t have time to be operating like we have the last 100 years in terms of legislative process. We’ve got to be ambitious and clear and courageous and get the work done.

“It’s very concerning. And I think particularly in a year that’s not an election year, and it’s a long session, that’s even more frustrating.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.