Connecticut Lawmakers Float Reviving TCI Carbon Cap Program in Special Session

Increased transportation emissions, despite significant progress in reducing greenhouse gases produced by power plants, leave Connecticut still far behind on its goals to reduce the state’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The findings, part of an annual report by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection concerning the state’s greenhouse emissions, have spurred renewed calls for lawmakers to approve the Transportation and Climate Initiative – a cap-and-trade program that proponents say would generate $1 billion to fund projects that could reduce emissions from transportation, but that opponents say amounts to an unaffordable and regressive gas tax.

Carbon cap legislation failed to make it to the floor for a vote during the last legislative session, but leaders in the Senate say the discussions haven’t stopped – and the Transportation and Climate Initiative could come back as soon as this month as part of a larger package.

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes renewed calls for lawmakers to pass the Transportation and Climate Initiative in a news release. Dykes has repeatedly said that it is not possible for Connecticut to reach its emissions goals with the tools the state has available, and has advocated using TCI as a way to both cap emissions from fossil fuel-burning vehicles and invest in infrastructure for cleaner transportation.

“This report demonstrates that there is urgent work to be done for Connecticut to reduce our share of the greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change,” said Dykes. “Taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not only help to mitigate the harm and the costs to future generations, but it will also deliver immediate benefits to Connecticut communities today, in terms of cleaner air, better health, more affordable transportation, growing jobs, strengthened infrastructure, and better quality of life.”

According to the report, Connecticut released 42.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 – the most recent year for which data is available. That amount is 17.8 percent below what it was in 2001 – the benchmark year for Connecticut’s goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050. But it is about 2.9 percent higher than the state’s goal for 2020, and a 2.7 percent increase from 2017.

Emissions from transportation accounted for more than a third of Connecticut’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Though those emissions were significantly lower in 2018 than at their peak in 2004, they have increased slightly compared to emissions in 1990, and increased about 3 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to DEEP.

That increase comes in spite of advances in the fuel efficiency of cars and vehicles – which have improved emissions per mile traveled by 16 percent since 1990. People have driven more miles overall, offsetting the gains in efficiency. And the improved efficiency has also leveled off in recent years as the average age of cars and trucks in the U.S. has increased, according to DEEP.

By DEEP’s accounting, emissions from the electricity sector appear to be on a better track. Emissions from electricity consumed in Connecticut have declined 35 percent since 2001 as buildings and appliances were made more energy efficient and the region shifted from fuels like coal to natural gas and renewables. 

But even that improvement comes with the caveat that Connecticut is a net energy exporter – more energy is produced here than used – and emissions from energy generated in Connecticut increased about 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to DEEP’s data.

Speaking at a beach in Milford on Tuesday, Gov. Ned Lamont said “a stitch in time saves nine” – advocating for spending money now to curb climate change and avoiding even larger costs down the road. He pointed to houses that need to be raised to avoid recurring floods, and the costs of restoring electrical infrastructure after damaging storms that electric customers will need to pay for.

“A lot of folks say, look, ‘I agree, the environment’s really important. But not now,’ or, ‘I don’t like your idea to get people out of cars and trucks and get them onto public transportation,’ or, ‘I don’t like how you wanna pay for resiliency,’” Lamont said. “But ‘just say no’ is not an answer. Come to my table. If you’ve got a better idea, I’m ready to listen to it.

“We’ve done a really good job with our electric system,” Lamont said. “But we’ve got to start moving our transportation system, and having all-electric cars and all-electric trucks – what a difference that could make.”

TCI discussions now include low-income tax breaks

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, previously told CT Examiner that there was broad support among Democrats for the goals of TCI, but concerns over the burden it would place on low-income motorists meant there weren’t enough votes to pass it. 

Since the session ended in June, there has been enough progress trying to find ways to offset those costs that Looney told CT Examiner on Tuesday that it was possible TCI could come up as part of a larger package when lawmakers convene for a special session this month to debate extending Lamont’s emergency powers again.

“I’m hopeful that we can address this before February, before the next regular session,” Looney said. “It’s unclear at this point whether we will be able to deal with them as soon as this month. There’s an awful lot of complex things that would have to come together.”

Looney said one proposal from the Environment Committee co-Chair Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, was to create a tax credit for low-income people offsetting what they pay for gasoline.

Another proposal was to look into making electric rates progressive, so lower income customers would pay a lower rate, he said – something that PURA approved for Connecticut Water customers this year. Lawmakers could also discuss expanding the property tax credit so that it could count against the income tax, which could help middle-income families, Looney said.

“None of them have been fully evaluated yet in terms of cost and impact and feasibility, but there’s a concerted effort to try to find some way to do something other than just raise people’s gas taxes,” Looney said.

Environment Committee co-chair State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said the report highlights how urgent it is for lawmakers to take drastic measures to reduce emission and do what it can to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

She said she wanted lawmakers to adopt California’s emissions standards for trucks like it has for cars, a proposal that passed the Senate last session, but wasn’t called in the House – and to pass the TCI. 

Cohen said she’s heard the concerns about what she calls a small increase in gas prices, and lawmakers have been researching proposals like the progressive electric rates and increasing rebates on the cash for clunkers program.

“We’re talking about how we can get them across the finish line at the same time – the TCI-P program and something progressive, with the recognition that, perhaps adding a nickel to gas prices would be overly burdensome to some,” Cohen said.

State Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of TCI, said in a statement that the data released by DEEP highlights that air pollution is an issue that Connecticut must address. But Kelly said TCI is not the solution, calling it a “false promise to improve our environment” that will create a financial burden that will impact low-income residents the hardest. 

“We have long heard from Attorney General Tong that Connecticut sits at the end of the tailpipe of our nation’s exhaust fumes. The TCI gas tax does nothing to change that,” Kelly said. “No states to our west are participating in the program, meaning nothing will change in the states that generate the pollution that damages CT’s air.”

With large amounts of infrastructure money likely to come from the federal government, Connecticut should be working to maximize the investments it can make to protect the environment and improve infrastructure using those funds, Kelly said.

Cohen said she didn’t see it as an either-or. The state needs to spend infrastructure money on its transportation system that is “notoriously behind,” she said. And it needs to make investments in transit in an environmentally-friendly way, she said.

“It’s wonderful that we’re getting the infrastructure passed, and that we will have something we can put in the transportation sector, but there is so much to be done, and the time is absolutely now to be doing this,” Cohen said.

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