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In CT, a fight is unfolding over banning gas-powered cars by 2035

An electric car charging at the University of Connecticut in Storrs on May 09, 2023.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Electric vehicle charging stations setup to also charge for the service in Area 1 premium & commuter parking at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and on campuses across the state. Storrs, Connecticut May 09, 2023.

An unfolding fight over proposed regulations that would ban automakers from selling new gasoline-powered vehicles in Connecticut by 2035 echoes a partisan battle in Congress and foreshadows a potential wedge issue in the General Assembly’s session and elections in 2024.

Regulations favored by Gov. Ned Lamont and proposed by his environmental protection commissioner, Katie Dykes, would implement the latest revisions to California’s clean air standards, which require manufacturers to steadily curb emissions by weaning the new vehicle market off gasoline from 2027 through 2035.

In a letter sent Sept. 29 to the legislature’s non-partisan legal office, the Republican minority leaders, Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford and Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford, argued that phasing out the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 is beyond the administration’s regulatory authority.

On Thursday, the leaders of the legislature’s legal office said in a written reply to Kelly and Candelora that their review, as always, would include “a close look at the statutory authority for the regulation,” but the power to accept, reject or seek revisions rests solely with the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee.

The only lawyer with the authority to declare the proposed regulations as inconsistent with state law is Attorney General William Tong. And he already has spoken.

On Oct. 2, Tong’s office deemed Kelly and Candelora wrong when it certified the legal sufficiency of the proposed regulations, essentially ratifying the administration’s position that they were authorized by a 2004 state law that committed Connecticut to California’s emission standards, the only option to the more permissive federal standards available to the states.

“That’s the step in the process that provides us with the assurance that our regulation is not exceeding the statute that authorized promulgation of those regs,” said Dykes, the commissioner behind the regulations.

The Republican minority leaders, Sen. Kevin Kelly, left, and Rep. Vincent J. Candelora.
The Republican minority leaders, Sen. Kevin Kelly, left, and Rep. Vincent J. Candelora.

But Republicans have another card to play under Connecticut’s unusual system of reviewing and approving regulations, and the next phase of the fight will be waged in a bipartisan venue, a boost to a GOP that controls no levers of power in state government.

Unlike the regulatory framework of the federal government and many states, Connecticut gives the legislature veto power over regulations, albeit one that is supposed to turn on a narrow question: Does the regulation implement legislation?

As part of the national movement by state legislatures in the 1970s to achieve a measure of parity with the executive branch, the General Assembly voted in 1971 to create a Regulation Review Committee. By law, it has equal members of Democrats and Republicans, regardless of which party holds the majority.

“It is not the purpose of this committee to be partisan,” then-Rep. David H. Neidetz, D-West Hartford, said during the floor debate about creating the committee. “It’s the purpose of this committee to see that the legislative intent is carried out. And that it’s also important that no regulation could become effective without approval of this standing committee.”

In most states where lawmakers have the power to reject regulations, the burden is higher than in Connecticut: Passage of a law or resolution by the full legislature is necessary.

If all seven Republicans on the 14-member Regulation Review Committee share the views of their leaders on the California regulations, then opposition by a single Democrat would kill the regulations. At least one Democrat on the panel, Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, says she has serious doubts about them.

A tie vote would deem them approved after a 65-day waiting period. No vote is scheduled until late November.

The committee often seeks revisions, but outright disapproval of regulations has been rare on a panel that typically operates without partisan divisions. The reviews tend to be technical, assessing whether regulations proposed by an agency of the executive branch are consistent with legislative intent.

“We have to remember this was approved by the legislature in 2004. And we’re just talking about the implementation here,” said Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, co-chair of the committee.

“We’re not supposed to set policy,” said Sen. James Maroney, D-Milford, the ranking Senate Democrat on the 14-member committee.

Kelly, the Senate GOP leader and a committee member, agrees with Maroney, saying committee members should not hesitate to vote for regulations that implement policies they find wrong-headed but reflect legislative intent. A personal example is recreational cannabis, whose legalization Kelly vehemently opposed in the Senate.

“I’ve been consistent — consistently voting against cannabis,” Kelly said. “But yet when the cannabis regs came before the committee, I voted in favor of the regulations, because they were squarely within the intent of the law.”

But Kelly and Candelora say the proposed emissions regulations represent a major policy change that should be considered by the full legislature, regardless of provisions in a law passed with only one dissenting vote in 2004. The goal 19 years ago was to mandate the manufacture and sale of more low-emission vehicles, not force a transition to a zero-emission product line, they said.

“These standards were focused on reducing the pollutants from gasoline-powered cars — a laudable goal designed to protect our environment,” Kelly and Candelora wrote in their letter. “However, at the time these regulations were not about eliminating gas cars altogether.”

The law clearly anticipated changes, if not an evolution of the California rules. The issue today is, to what degree?

The 2004 law, “An Act Concerning Clean Cars,” states that Connecticut’s commissioner of environmental protection shall adopt regulations “to implement the light duty motor vehicle emission standards of the state of California, and shall amend such regulations from time to time, in accordance with changes in said standards.”

Connecticut also had adopted an earlier version of California low-emission regulations in 1994, then opted for a national compliance alternative for several years, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Last year, one element of a sweeping Connecticut Clean Air Act clarified that the state also should follow the California standards for medium and heavy trucks. Unlike the original 2004 law, the 2022 version passed with support from only one Republican, Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield.

Charles Rothenberger, a climate-and-energy lawyer with the environmental group Save The Sound, said, “It’s clear that [the commissioner] has statutory authority to adopt these regulations.”

Connecticut is one of 17 states that chose to adopt California’s emission standards over the more federal rules, an option that reflects the policy initiatives of two Republican icons, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, and a time when environmental issues crossed party lines.

Reagan was governor of California in 1967 when the state created the California Air Resources Board to set standards intended to curb the choking smog generated by the state’s car culture and penned in over southern California by mountains to the east of Los Angeles.

Nixon was president when the Clean Air Act was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was created, both in 1970. Nixon agreed to a provision in the law that let California’s older rules stand and gave other states the option of adopting them.

In his State of the Union address that year, Nixon said Americans should be willing to make financial sacrifices — “reparations” was his word —to reverse environmental degradation and leave a livable planet to later generations.

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country,” Nixon said. “It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”

Last month, Nixon’s old party was behind the 222-190 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives for the “Preserving Choice in Vehicle Purchase Act.”It would block the EPA from giving California a waiver to “limit the sale or use of new motor vehicles with internal combustion engines.”

Biden is opposed to ending the California limits, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up the Republican bill. But it is a political marker for the 2024 campaigns, a promise Republicans will demand that Democrats say if they favor the phasing out of vehicles powered by internal combustion.

“What I see is Democrats don’t want to talk about this. I think they’re scared to death of the political ramifications of this policy,” Candelora said. “And that’s why I think Democrats don’t want it to go to the [full] General Assembly. They don’t want to have a conversation about it, and they want to hide from it.”

About a half-dozen of the 17 California-standard states have moved to implement the 2035 target for phasing out new gasoline-powered vehicles.

The conservative Yankee Institute has organized against the regulations with a take-action web page, but a spokesman said the group was not behind the hundreds of identical opposition letters submitted to the state during the public comment period. The Sierra Club and a coalition of religious groups have urged support.

Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, the co-chair of the Environment Committee, said hearing echoes of congressional Republican talking points in Connecticut is unsettling.

“After years of good Connecticut collegiality, it is a little disappointing to see some of these federal dysfunctions come into the Connecticut legislature,” Lopes said. “To try to gin this up into a campaign issue when it’s 10 years, more than 10 years away — just seems a little bit disingenuous. We all know that this is a goal. We set goals down the road, 10 years-plus, all the time.”

Lopes said Connecticut will revise the 2035 goal if there are signs the market or the state is not ready to meet them.

Candelora, who has worked cooperatively with Democrats on some key issues and generally has eschewed taking lessons from the national GOP playbook, said the state Republicans are expressing legitimate policy differences, not trying to score political points.

The cost of the transition to zero-emission vehicles is a major factor in a debate that has sharply divided the two major parties — and unsettled some Democrats. Current technology and market dynamics mean that electric vehicles will be the primary means of getting to zero emissions.

Osten, a Democratic senator who sits on Regulation Review and represents a district with distressed municipalities, said she is concerned about the affordability of EVs for commuters and businesses, as well as the difficulties renters might have in being able to charge them over night.

“I’m worried about the price point. I don’t know how people on the lower and middle income level are going to be able to afford that,” Osten said in an interview Friday after a briefing by state environmental officials. “I haven’t made up my mind — just to be very clear — on how I’m going to vote, but I have significant concerns for what my constituents have the capacity to do.”

Candelora said the regulations would commit the the Connecticut motor vehicle market to electric vehicles with little assurance that the electric grid would be ready for the additional demands, that EVs would come down in price as projected, or that sufficient charging infrastructure would be ready.

Osten and Candelora said they see the regulations as a hard commitment by Connecticut to a zero-emission motor vehicle product line in 2035, not merely a goal. Lamont said the regulations offer the state and manufacturers a long runway to change.

Commissioner Katie Dykes and Gov. Ned Lamont.
Commissioner Katie Dykes and Gov. Ned Lamont.

“Do big things slowly,” Lamont said, noting that the 12-year phase-in period coincides with the targets set by automakers, whom he says are reassured by the Connecticut approach. “Before I did this, I talked to the automobile companies.”

Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, the House co-chair of Environment, said the state has work to do beyond adopting regulations if the public is to embrace electric vehicles.

“You have to diversify the portfolio as you’re making the transition,” Gresko said. “You can’t just force people to buy electric vehicles. You got to incentivize them. You have to give some time for our grid to adapt and modernize.”

Gresko said the approach is measured, one that he is happy to defend in 2024. It will not take gas or diesel-powered vehicles off the road in 2035 nor ban their sale on the used vehicle market. But they won’t be in new truck and car showrooms.

The Connecticut Automotive Retail Association, the trade group representing auto dealers, was not among the 4,000 individuals and groups that submitted public comments to the state on the proposed regulations.

Jeff Aiosa, a Mercedes-Benz dealer and member of the association’s executive board, said the dealers’ approach is simple: Whatever vehicles are produced by manufacturers in 2035, the dealers will sell them.

This story was first published Oct. 17, 2023 by Connecticut Mirror.

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