By Ken Dixon
MILFORD — While electric generators slightly reduced their air emissions in 2018, increases in transportation and business-and-residential emissions continue to make Connecticut’s air some of the worst in the nation at the same time it is contributing to climate change and rising sea levels.
Those are some of the findings of a new report released Tuesday by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that Gov. Ned Lamont used as an occasion to revive his attempt to persuade the General Assembly to join the regional Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI).
“I think the votes are there,” Lamont said Tuesday morning when reporters asked whether he would ask fellow Democrats in the legislature to include the issue this month in a special session to consider the extension of his pandemic emergency powers. “I’m sitting down. I’m talking to the leadership. If they can make it pass, I think it’s a good idea. If the Republicans have a better idea, tell me their idea, but give me an alternative. Connecticut has been a leader. I want us to stay a leader.”
Using the picturesque marsh and boardwalks at Silver Sands State Park as a sunny, late-summer backdrop, Lamont and state environmental officials said that extreme weather events will be occurring more often unless the world can somehow slow down the warming atmosphere.
“Climate change changes the weather,” said James O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation at UConn. “The climate is going to warm and it’s hard to think of any theory in which increasing emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere doesn’t lead to warming. When you warm the atmosphere it holds more water vapor. So CO2 emissions need to be capped in order to limit the amount of warming that occurs in order to reduce the severe weather impacts.”
“People are seeing the impact of climate change,” said DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes, announcing that although the inventory of greenhouse gas emissions is three-years-old, it remains very relevant. “We’ve seen rainstorms that are depositing six, eight inches of rain in the period of just a few hours. Climate delay is just as dangerous for our kids as climate denial,” Dykes said. “We have to tackle both climate delay and climate denial. We have to continue to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, so that we can prevent these gas emissions from becoming catastrophically worse.”
Connecticut recognized climate change as far back as 2008, and Dykes believes that the state continues to realize decreasing emissions in the electric-power sector as buildings become more energy efficient, the use of solar energy expands, and the cap-and-trade Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative sets long-term emission goals, including a 45-percent reduction of emissions by 2030.
The report says Connecticut created 42.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, about 7.3 percent below 1990 levels; 17.8 percent below 2001 levels; and 24 percent below 2004 levels, the year they peaked. But Connecticut’s 2018 transportation-sector emissions were 1.3 percent higher than those of 1990.
In the residential and commercial arena, colder weather drove higher emissions from 2017 to 2018, including an 18-percent increase in emissions from residential use of fuel oil in 2018 and a nearly 9-percent increase in emissions from the use of natural gas. Commercial emissions increased nearly 11 percent for natural gas and 6.6 percent for fuel oil.
Lamont said he will again ask legislative leaders to consider joining TCI, which would generate a billion dollars for the state over 10 years to fund mass-transit, electric vehicles including replacing the state’s 6,000 diesel-burning school buses and fund coastal resiliency projects. His plan to join TCI failed during this year’s legislative session amid Republican claims that the estimated nickel-a-gallon cost to raise about $90 million a year would be just another tax on state residents.
“We all want cleaner air for Connecticut residents,” said state Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “But the TCI gas tax is a false promise to improve our environment. A new gas tax will not result in cleaner air. Rather it creates a new financial burden that will hit low-income residents the hardest.”
Kelly said that since no states to the west of Connecticut are participating in the TCI, their air pollution will continue to drift to Connecticut with prevailing weather patterns.
“There is a problem, we all agree, but the TCI gas tax is not the solution,” Kelly said in a statement on Tuesday. “With a historic level of funding from Washington likely headed to Connecticut, we should be working on maximizing a record investment in our state to protect the environment and improve our infrastructure - without hurting working and middle class families in the process.”
On Wednesday, legislative Republicans have scheduled a “Stop the Gas Tax” rally from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Wheels gas station located off of Interstate-95 at 440 Lordship Blvd in Stratford.
AAA Northeast on Tuesday reported that the statewide average of $2.40 per gallon in January for regular fuel jumped to $3 in March, $3.13 in July and $3.19 last month.
Still, it seems less likely that majority Democrats will piggyback the contentious climate initiative into a special session that would otherwise focus on giving Lamont a few more months of emergency powers as the COVID pandemic lingers.
Democrats dropped TCI amid Lamont’s opposition to their request to raises taxes on the state’s wealthiest.
“I look forward to discussing TCI and climate policy with the Governor and other leaders. I know it’s an important issue to our members in House Democrats,” said Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, on Tuesday. “The weather the last few weeks is a stark reminder that climate change is real and will require federal and state investments to prepare for the changing weather patterns and more frequent extreme storms.”
But another special session later in the year, possibly combining the climate legislation with the issue of a rise in the theft of automobiles, might be a more-realistic occasion for TCI to be discussed again in the General Assembly.
“TCI has to be reconfigured somewhat to address the problem in the governor’s original proposal that had a gas tax proposal that would be damaging to middle and low-income drivers,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “We have to do it in a way that would not put a disproportionate and regressive burden on the portion of the population that would view it as punitive,” Looney said in a Tuesday interview.
“The problem that existed in the General Assembly, talking with members in both chambers, is that people are broadly supportive of the goal, but they have grave concerns that the proposal not sensitive enough to the needs of moderate and low-income drivers,” Looney said.
But environmentalists warned that Connecticut is slipping away from a leadership role.
“This report demonstrates that our legislative leaders cannot continue to turn a blind eye to our worsening climate crisis and our state’s failure to meet its own commitments,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at the Save the Sound advocacy organization.
“This market-based, cap-and-invest program will reduce carbon emissions from the largest source of climate pollution in Connecticut, the transportation sector, while investing in healthy, resilient local communities,” Rothenberger said in a statement after the report’s release. “Last session the General Assembly had numerous opportunities to take necessary and meaningful action on climate change pollution, including by passing the Transportation and Climate Initiative, and it failed on each and every one.”
kdixon@ Twitter: @KenDixonCT