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Connecticut climate bills are killed by energy company lobbyists, study finds

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Governor Ned Lamont announced this week that he is moving forward without state lawmakers to address climate change — and perhaps for good reason. A study from Brown University shows most legislation proposed over the last decade that would keep Connecticut on track to take action on climate change was derailed by lobbyists from the energy industry.

Most of Connecticut’s climate-related bills fail to make it out of the state’s environmental committee, which means they never go to a full vote with lawmakers to become law. That’s true for any kind of legislation, but what makes bills related to climate change different is that they have overwhelming support from public testimony.

“I think you have to wonder when 91% of the testimony is in favor of something, and yet bills die quietly in committees, somewhere in the process, that there's some other influence being exerted,” said Timmons Roberts, the author of the Brown University study.

The study was released by an international group of scholars that he leads called the Climate Social Science Network. The group was started during the pandemic to coordinate and conduct global research into the political conflict over climate change.

“I think it's important to find ways in the state to sort of balance that power, balance political influence,” he said.

His study looked at nearly 3,000 pieces of testimony submitted regarding 48 different bills related to climate policy in Connecticut from 2013 to 2020. Over 90% of that public testimony was adamant about increased energy regulations, the expansion of clean energy and the elimination of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

But when it came time to advance bills out of committee, lawmakers choked.

“We saw that the utilities are hugely influential,” Roberts said. “They, in general, succeed in defeating the legislation that they don't want.”

Electric and gas utilities spent over $24 million on lobbying Connecticut lawmakers over the eight years of this study. That’s eight times that of environmental organizations. However, they submitted significantly less testimony against climate legislation.

Amy McLean, senior policy advocate and Connecticut director at Acadia Center, said she was disappointed to learn that her testimony might have been worth less to lawmakers than lobbying dollars.

“We know that we are outmatched financially,” she said.

The Acadia Center also lobbies for climate policy. All of the state’s environmental organizations combined spent over $1 million on lobbying since 2013, while Eversource Energy, which is the largest energy provider in the Northeast, was the highest spender of any sector at nearly $7 million.

A spokesperson said “categorizing Eversource as anti-climate” ignores the progress the company has made to become carbon neutral by 2030 through supporting electric vehicles, battery storage and offshore wind.

“We’re all in on a clean energy future and share Connecticut’s green energy goals,” they said.

McLean and other climate advocates just don’t buy it.

“They don't even testify half the time, because they don't need to,” she said. “There's a different channel. And we're very aware that this channel exists.”

It’s a sign that lobbying efforts outside the halls of the Legislature might be more effective than the Democratic process of submitting official testimony. That’s become obvious for Democratic state Representative Joe Gresko, who co-chairs the environmental committee.

“I see it every day, when we are in the Capitol,” Gresko said. “It's easy to lobby, when you're trying to prevent something from happening, because you can dress it up in a negative fashion. And that's usually what people are tuned in to believe.”

The study found that opposition testimony focused on delaying the potential short-term economic impact that individual climate or clean energy bills could have in Connecticut, rather than attacking or denying climate science.

“They're not against everything in terms of climate change,” Roberts said. “They were, for example, OK with offshore wind, but not necessarily OK with any kind o f incentives for electric vehicles or for renewables. It was unfair to people who don't take advantage of them.”

Opposition lobbyists in recent years also targeted the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a multistate joint plan to reduce vehicle emissions by up to 25% over 10 years. Part of the TCI would require gas suppliers to buy carbon credits for contributing to excess pollution.

Industry members and Republicans compared TCI to another “gas tax” that will hurt home heating customers and drivers at the pump.

“Taxes levied against gasoline and trucks that the middle-class families of Connecticut are going to have to pay at a time when the middle-class family is struggling,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said last April.

Meanwhile, Democrats and environmental groups advocated for TCI with climate science. Transportation makes up at least 40% of pollutants, and that impacts public health disproportionally in low-income and communities of color.

“They're located at the nexus of highways that come into those cities and leave the diesel buses that run the streets, those are all of the emissions that are disproportionately affecting the residents and continuing to cause this horrible epidemic of asthma and other health related issues,” McLean said. “So equity and health have to be at the centerpiece of all of our climate legislation.”

The TCI was in the 16% climate bills that eventually advanced from the state environmental committee.

“Political gamesmanship that occurred in Connecticut ultimately torpedoed the efforts of TCI,” McLean said, noting that the legislation had overwhelming public support. “So while TCI is not dead forever, it's probably not going to move in 2022, but we'll do it separately in different individual bills.”

The study recommends Connecticut lawmakers pay more attention to testimony that is more meaningful and require more transparency about the positions of lobbyists. For Gresko, he tries to focus on residents in his district that stand out from the lobbying crowd.

“After a while you get used to who the players are and what they're going to say. So I'm looking for that, that other person who maybe lives this,” Gresko said. “You will get a response from your legislator if you take the time to email them personally. I can guarantee you will.”

Environmental groups said they plan to use the study as a roadmap to get the state to join the TCI next year even if they lack the lobbying dollars to put their money where their mouth is.

Copyright 2021 WSHU. To see more, visit WSHU.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's afternoon news editor. Formally WAMC’s Berkshire bureau chief, he has reported for public radio stations, including bylines with WSHU, WNYC, WBUR, WNPR and NPR. J.D. has reported on healthcare and small businesses for "Long Island Business News" and real estate and land-use for The Press News Group newspapers. He also hosted, produced and engineered award-winning programs at WUSB Stony Brook. An avid fencer in his free time, J.D. holds a B.A. in journalism and sociology from Stony Brook University and an M.S. in communications from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

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