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With TCI Tabled, Worry Rises About Connecticut Missing Mandatory Air Quality Targets

Katie Dykes on Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live in 2015 when she was deputy commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Chion Wolf
Connecticut Public Radio
DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes

The state legislature last month failed to pass a program aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But reducing emissions is part of state law, which is raising questions about what happens if the state fails to meet its mandatory pollution targets.

The law, signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2018, says the state must reduce its emissions 45% below 2001 levels by 2030. 

The latest emission data from 2017 show Connecticut’s reductions hovering at around 17%. 

“We know that we will not be able to meet the legislatively mandated targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030, unless we have a tool that’s as impactful as the transportation climate initiative or TCI, to help us significantly reduce emissions,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

But last month, TCI failed to get called for a vote in the state legislature.

TCI would have placed a cap on vehicle emissions by requiring gas and on-road diesel wholesalers to purchase pollution allowances. Money raised would have been reinvested in clean energy programs and communities overburdened by air pollution. 

Now that TCI is on hold in Connecticut, Dykes said, the state is facing a situation in which transportation emissions are actually rising and environmental officials are struggling to muster the regulatory muscle they say they will need to achieve the state’s emissions goals. 

“In other states, they have broad regulatory authority conferred on their environment agency to implement regulations to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions targets,” Dykes said. “Here in Connecticut, that authority is more vague, and untested, or nonexistent.”

So what happens if Connecticut fails to hit that 2030 pollution goal? 

Dirtier air, yes. But could the state also be open to a legal challenge?

“It is an evolving landscape,” said Shannon Laun, a staff attorney with Conservation Law Foundation, based in Connecticut.

“There have been a number of lawsuits, recently, many of these have been in Europe, where courts are actually holding governments accountable for not doing enough to meet their climate commitments,” Laun said. 

“I think we are moving into a new phase where there’s greater willingness to hold governments and companies accountable and make sure that they’re actually meeting their professed goals on climate change,” Laun said.

In a statement, a DEEP spokesperson said that putting the 2030 goal in state law means the target must transfer from governor to governor but that it does not believe the state could be taken to court or face legal repercussions for not meeting the mandatory goals. 

“State officials are generally of the opinion that things are not as enforceable as others think,” Laun said. “Obviously, the enforceability has not yet been tested in court, but there are mechanisms to hold governments accountable for what they say they’ll do.”

Dykes said she’d check with agency lawyers about the potential for future legal challenges should the state fail to meet its 2030 goal.

In the meantime, she said, the agency will issue a report in the coming days about the state’s progress toward its 2030 pollution target. 

“We’re assessing our current emissions level in light of that target and evaluating our current progress in [relation] to the reductions that will need to occur,” Dykes said, “in the years that are remaining before 2030.”

“These are significant goals,” Dykes said. “We’ve got a significant hill to climb.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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