Lamont issues order to battle climate change in Connecticut

HARTFORD — Stymied this year by a General Assembly that was reluctant to join a regional effort in the battle against climate change, Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday signed an executive order aimed at supporting energy efficiency in state buildings and tackling transportation-related air pollution that hurts the health of urban communities along Connecticut’s interstate highways.

The order, enlisting a variety of state departments in an effort toward resiliency that was outlined in a January report from Governor’s Council on Climate Change, received mixed reviews from the state’s environmental activists who warned that major commitments are needed right now to slow down the accelerating effects of climate change.

Lamont signed the order outside the east entrance of the State Capitol Thursday morning. Much of the funding depends on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, which is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

“What we weren’t able to do through legislation here in Connecticut over the last year or two, so we’re taking the lead right now with this executive order,” Lamont told reporters and a small crowd. “It’s really important that we lead by example. State government leads by example.”

More efficient appliances, tougher building codes and support for more solar power in state buildings is among Lamont’s objectives to reduce energy costs. There will also be an increase in the state’s air-monitoring program, expanding the number of stations that track pollutants. As much as $60 million will be invested in adding more charging stations for electric vehicles.

“The No. 1 source of pollution right now is our transportation system,” Lamont said. “Connecticut is doing really well when it comes to the electric grid. We’re doing really well when it comes to getting zero carbon in our electric grid over the next 10, 15 years.” Planned uses of federal funding include converting state buses to electric-powered.

“We need all of government involved in this to take the lead and we need the business sector as well,” Lamont said, backed up by several representatives of agencies, including the departments of Insurance, Agriculture, Public Health, Economic and Community Development and Transportation. “This is the market calling us to do this.”

“We know that this is the crisis of our time and it calls on all of us to get involved and get engaged,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

No members of the General Assembly attended the event, but state Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chairwoman of the legislative Environment Committee, praised the order.

“There are a lot of forward-looking planning and action items in the governor’s new executive order, as well as some more immediately achievable items to reduce motor vehicle emissions, reduce building greenhouse gases, recycle food waste, engage in more air monitoring, and update our stormwater drainage systems,” Cohen said in a statement. “All of those items — many of which private-sector businesses across America have been engaged in for several years — can and should be undertaken as a soon as possible in Connecticut.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, blasted the governor’s move.

“This is pandering in its truest form,” Candelora said in a statement. “Gov. Lamont is going around the General Assembly by installing concepts that failed to make it through the committee process, all in a bid to appease the frustrated environmentalists in his political base. The worst part is that Democrats serving in the legislature won’t care — they’ll continue to remain silent while the governor noodles around with policies and programs that carry consequence and cost for their constituents.”

The order calls for nearly two dozen actions, including local, shovel-ready resilience projects; tightening emission standards in line with California rules on medium and heavy-duty vehicles; and supporting carbon sequestration in forests and agriculture.

While environmental advocates favor the overall goals, they warn that the governor’s initiative will not meet Connecticut’s needs amid the accelerating global trend in weather extremes.

“Rising temperatures force schools to shut down and businesses to curtail operations on sweltering days,” said Chris Phelps, state director of Environmental Connecticut. “Farmers struggle with devastation to crops from extreme weather. Families face growing threats to their homes and safety from flooding and deadly storms.”

Phelps warned that the General Assembly, which this year rejected Lamont’s plan to join the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative, which would have generated about $1 billion over 10 years through cap-and-trade taxes on the fossil-fuel industry, is endangering the state by not acting boldly.

“They have failed to cap pollution from transportation, failed to commit to 100-percent clean renewable energy, and put off serious climate action for the future,” Phelps said in a statement.

The rejection of the governor’s proposal was a victory for Republicans and industry lobbyists who used the projected 5-cents per-gallon increase in gasoline as a way to drum up public opposition, even at a time when the market was pushing up consumer prices $1 or more per-gallon.

“Gov. Lamont’s executive order has good ideas,” Phelps said. “Purchasing clean electricity for state properties and requiring manufacturers to produce more efficient appliances that use less energy are good steps to take. But they represent only a small down payment on the work necessary to win the race to stop climate change.”

Charles Rothenberger, attorney for the advocacy group, Save the Sound, supported Lamont’s attempt to get state agencies to consider climate change.

“Adopting vehicle miles traveled reduction targets by DOT, making greenhouse gas reductions a core consideration in state building code updates, and establishing new administrative entities to focus on environmental justice will be instrumental in meeting Connecticut’s economy-wide greenhouse reduction obligations in an equitable manner that accelerates the clean energy economy and reduces climate-related public health impacts,” he said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with the administration to ensure that the directives result in robust, real-world emissions reductions,” Rothenberger said. “For example, while we applaud the adoption of a 100 percent electric bus fleet by 2035, a 100 percent EV mandate for the state’s light-duty vehicle fleet is equally essential to our continued progress in reducing transportation-sector greenhouse gas emissions.”

Asked if he was still disappointed that the General Assembly backed away from TCI, with the uproar over a nickel-a-gallon more in consumer costs, Lamont said he was looking forward, but wasn’t planning on pushing the issue in 2022.

“Look, the market has added about a buck fifty per-gallon of gasoline over the last nine months or something,” Lamont said.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT