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CT legislators take another swing at a big climate bill

The Connecticut State Capitol on Feb. 14, 2024.
Erica Phillips
CT Mirror
The Connecticut State Capitol on Feb. 14, 2024.

The mystery climate bill of the 2024 legislative session is finally public.

“An act concerning the implementation of certain climate change measures” — the benign title for HB 5004 — is a densely packed omnibus bill with 17 multi-part initiatives designed to address the causes and impacts of climate change across multiple sectors.

The bill is the brainchild of Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester and vice chair of the Environment Committee, who started working on it shortly after last session’s failure to pass virtually any meaningful climate change legislation.

Weeks before the bill’s release, it was already a target for the conservative Yankee Institute, which dubbed it the “green monster.” Republican leaders also introduced their own climate agenda.

Rep. Christine Palm checking the vote in the House chambers during a 2019 vote.
Kathleen Megan
CT Mirror
Rep. Christine Palm checking the vote in the House chambers during a 2019 vote. 

The bill scoops up some failed measures from previous years but is not the kind of comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction roadmap other states, including Massachusetts, have implemented and that Palm advocated for last year. Her bill, which would have started a roadmap process, also failed last year.

“We want this to be more of an incentive to do the right thing than punishment if you don’t,” said Palm, adding that the message from last year’s failed efforts was received.

Palm, who has announced she will not run for reelection this year, also noted that the limits of a short session are more conducive to “a bill that is far more full of carrot than stick, far more full of incentives than mandates, punishments, fines, et cetera.”

Sen. Stephen Harding, the new Senate Republican leader and the ranking senator on the Environment Committee, said he has not yet read the bill but added that “If 5004 is more incentivization-based as opposed to mandate-based, well that’s certainly a step in the right direction.”

He said he was looking forward to hearing what others think at the public hearing scheduled for March 8.

“It’s going to provide insight from all angles, which will be really helpful to us as legislators ultimately understanding the consequences in the bill — the good, the bad, the in-between — and then ultimately making the decision if the bill needs to be changed at all, for whatever reason, or if the bill needs to move forward,” he said.

The bill has several components directed at businesses, including sustainable business incentives and workforce training. Palm said she believes the business community has come to see that going green is good for their bottom line.

The range of other topics addressed in the bill include greenhouse gas emission levels, consumer information on energy, solar and heat pump deployment, and more.

Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney for the advocacy group Save the Sound, called it “a pretty modest proposal. It seems to be a lot of planning and a lot of incentives. So it should not be objectionable,” he said.

But things got off to a rocky start anyway, even before the bill was filed.

Part of the strategy is to present many of the bill’s components as separate bills to provide public vetting in the appropriate committees — Environment or Energy and Technology. The resulting pieces of legislation would then get folded back into the omnibus bill.

The solar components of the climate bill also exist in three bills before the Energy Committee. The day before the climate bill was released, the solar measures were discussed in a nine-hour public hearing, during which several concerns were raised.

The core solar measure for the omnibus bill is to lift caps that limit participation in two programs: commercial and community solar. (The residential solar program no longer has caps.) The goal is to take advantage of as much federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act as possible.

But Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes and others warned that removing the caps could lessen competition, ultimately leading to increased costs for ratepayers.

Commissioner Katie Dykes of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Gov. Ned Lamont last March at a climate protest.
Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
Commissioner Katie Dykes of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Gov. Ned Lamont last March at a climate protest. 

“Our concern is that the removal of the caps removes the incentive for developers to have to compete with one another to provide the lowest cost projects,” she told the committee. “If there’s no cap whatsoever, it’s possible … that developers could name whatever price and they would clear in the program. So without more detailed direction from the legislation about that, with the removal of the caps, we’re worried about that unintended consequence.”

Dykes noted that DEEP’s calculations did not include what’s known as avoided costs —those hard-to-calculate savings such as medical costs not needed because there’s less pollution in the air or additional electric transmission that doesn’t need to be built.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport and co-chair of the Energy Committee, said he wasn’t surprised by Dykes’ comments and remains determined to get legislation through this year to increase solar adoption, with or without the climate bill as its vehicle.

“So much of what’s going to happen with this bill will take place in further conversations now that the hearing is over,” he said. “We will talk to them about trying to find the path to an appropriate balance so we don’t overburden ratepayers, but we’re moving the ball forward. We’re honoring our plan for renewable energy.”

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg chairs a public hearing of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, Feb. 27, 2024.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg chairs a public hearing of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, Feb. 27, 2024. 

Palm wasn’t necessarily convinced.

“Where is the proof that (the cap) has actually kept costs down?” she said. “It’s an important question to ask, rather than simply accept that we need these caps because we believe that to do otherwise will unleash a Pandora’s box of inflation. I want to know why we believe that.”

“If we eliminate the caps, there’s more complexity to ensuring we are getting projects at the lowest cost,” said Rothenberger of Save the Sound. “There’s a bit of a trade-off there, but getting this right means more clean energy for Connecticut at reasonable prices.”

Steinberg said his understanding is that the federal funding will be available for several more years, which means there may be enough time to study the issue and have the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority devise a new paradigm for lifting the caps, keeping costs down and extending the programs, which are a year or two from expiring.

“I am open to the conversation about what components we want to try to get done for this year and what things we want to study or analyze,” he said.

Palm is less patient.

“I feel the urgency profoundly,” she said. “But the pragmatist in me knows that it’s not just up to me. So if energy and technology comes back and says we can’t implement this part of the bill for a year, that will be very disappointing. But will I allow my disappointment to blow up the entire bill? No, I won’t.”

Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich (center) and Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield (second from left), at a Feb. 23 press conference held to discuss proposals to provide ratepayers with relief on electric bills.
CT Mirror
Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich (center) and Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield (second from left), at a Feb. 23 press conference held to discuss proposals to provide ratepayers with relief on electric bills.

Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich and the ranking senator on the Energy Committee, said he would be “happy to have” that longer-term discussion. His thought is to maybe come up with an interim plan to borrow from future caps to make sure the state doesn’t miss out on the federal money.

“There are ways that we should improve regulation to make it easier for solar deployment to happen. I think that would be good for the state, and I think that there are parts of the three bills … that can move us in that direction,” Fazio said. “But removing the caps entirely as was proposed is a non-starter for me.”

Fazio and his caucus leader Harding have proposed their own six-point energy plan focused on electricity costs. Most of those provisions involve financial changes to the way certain costs are paid.

But one is to study ways to increase the natural gas supply for Connecticut and New England.

That proposal is in direct contrast to one of the climate bill’s proposals, which may prove to be quite controversial. The bill requires PURA to provide recommendations for phasing out the use of natural gas. Massachusetts has already become the first state to begin that process, with other nearby states considering it as well.

When asked about the idea earlier this year, Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford and co-chair of the Environment Committee, was not enthusiastic.

“I think a lot of people that have been supportive of some of our proposed ideas would lose their mind,” he said at the time. “I don’t foresee that happening in the state of Connecticut. I want to be able to accomplish what is accomplishable and not seek to potentially be on someone’s political mailer banning their use of natural gas-powered stoves or coming to take your stove.”

Palm said she would have preferred a complete ban and immediate moratorium on pipelines.

“Yes, that already has people worried,” she said. “But if you make the bridge of gas and nuclear so attractive, and you invest so much money on this quote-unquote bridge to renewables, people will set up shop on that bridge, pitch a tent and never move.”

Other provisions in the legislation are:

  • The declaration of a climate crisis to spur more urgent action. It does not authorize the governor to use powers he would have if climate was declared an emergency.
  • Greenhouse gas emission goals for state agencies to reach net zero by 2050 and zero-carbon electricity by 2030.
  • Global Warming Solutions Act revisions to bring Connecticut more in line with neighboring states, including economy-wide net zero by 2050 and the allowance of citizens’ suits to enforce it, and a report that recommends strategies to reach the goals. Strategies can now also include carbon sequestration.
  • Goal to install 310,000 heat pumps by 2030.
  • Requirement of mitigation strategies for transportation and energy infrastructure projects that are not in keeping with emissions targets. A similar measure failed in 2022.
  • Energy data “bill of rights” that makes energy and electric vehicle information easily available on DEEP’s website.
  • Incentives for businesses practicing environmental sustainability while also providing waivers to those that cannot.
  • Establishment of a Connecticut Clean Economy Council to prepare a workforce for clean energy jobs.
  • Creation of a small business incubator pilot program that focuses on environmentally friendly practices and nature-based solutions.
  • Expansion of the energy storage program
  • Prohibition of new or renovated state buildings from using fossil fuel-generated electrical systems, if funding is available.
  • Municipalities must consider sustainability and climate resilience in their plans of conservation and development. Development of sustainable purchasing policies for municipalities.
  • Development of nature-based climate solutions.

The scope of the bill makes it a tall order in a short legislative session.
“There’s never a good time for anything if you don’t want to do it,” Rothenberg said. “Last year was a long session. Apparently that was a bad time for it. Next year will be a long session. I’m sure that will be a bad time for it. I don’t think it’s dependent on short session versus long session, although I understand the practical challenges of that.”

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.