Coming out of the 2021 legislative session and heading into a reelection year, Gov. Ned Lamont’s record on the existential issue of climate change threatened to be painfully thin.
What he mainly had to show for himself was his failure to pass the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI. The plan was that TCI would address the persistently high motor vehicle emissions — major contributors to Connecticut’s ongoing inability to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets — and the equally persistent high smog levels produced from standard pollutants that have kept the state from meeting National Ambient Air Quality Standards for decades.
Then there was the legislature’s initial failure to approve his campaign promise of a carbon-free electric grid by 2040, leaving that mandate as an executive order — not the sturdiest of gubernatorial tools, as any new governor could get rid of it with the stroke of a pen. And there was a host of other ambitious plans that had gotten nowhere, including stricter emissions for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
But then Lamont — and pretty much every other governor in the nation — got lucky.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill, downsized though it was, finally made it through Congress, and President Joe Biden signed it on Nov. 15, 2021. It provided a cascade of funding to states, some for the kinds of transportation projects that the revenues from TCI were designed to fund.
A month later, Lamont issued a massive executive order — 23 multi-part items — to make up for the earlier legislative failure, and then some.
Since then, the governor has scored large climate change policy wins in the legislature with initiatives built specifically to capitalize on the federal infrastructure funding, many of which were plucked out of the executive order. The zero-carbon grid by 2040 finally made it into law.
The icing on the cake — the federal Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by Biden on Aug. 16, 2022 — is providing another funding infusion, along with federal programs to complement state climate change actions.
As Lamont heads towards Election Day, he can now point to a robust record on climate change, most of it enshrined in statute, largely made possible by the Biden administration.
“I was able to be more aggressive, thanks to some of the federal firepower which they brought to the table,” Lamont said in a recent telephone interview. “But we made big initiatives in those first couple of years, even under Trump.
“I was going to keep pushing regardless,” he said. “But it would have been a lot more complicated politically, no question about it.”
For voters, it may not have mattered either way.
Over decades of polling, voters have consistently said they care about the environment, but it typically ranks way down on a list of issues that determine their vote.
“For people who care — yes, it absolutely matters,” said Lori Brown, executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.
The League’s national organization Victory Fund counted Bob Stefanowski, the Republican nominee running against Lamont, among its Dirty Dozen in the States — what they characterize as “the worst environmental candidates in the nation at the state and local level.”
Stefanowski’s environmental positions unclear
Stefanowski’s website doesn’t include policy positions on climate change.
“He has avoided it like the plague,” Brown said. “He knows that’s not a winning issue for him.”
Stefanowski declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign instead requested questions in writing, which the CT Mirror provided, and then chose not to answer any of them. Instead, his campaign emailed a statement to the CT Mirror.
In its email, the campaign asserted that Stefanowski would support “clean natural gas and nuclear energy,” although natural gas, like all fossil fuels, is not considered a clean energy source. The campaign also said “we can’t mandate things like electric cars and household appliances when working people can’t afford the technology.”
The statement did not address expanded state and federal electric vehicle initiatives with enhanced incentives for lower-income people.
In quotes attributed to Stefanowski in the statement, he points to his work as a financial consultant on the Neom clean energy city project in Saudi Arabia. The project and Stefanowski have come in for criticism because of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and, more recently, the Saudi government’s refusal to supply more oil as nations contend with the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“My involvement in forward-thinking green energy projects has taught me that looking outside the box for new solutions and alternatives will be much more impactful than trying to squeeze compliance out of the current resources and habits of humankind,” his written statement said in part. “We absolutely need to work as a state, country, and planet to begin mitigating climate change in a meaningful manner,” the statement continued.
But there is a long list of topics not covered by the campaign’s email.
Would he, for instance, attempt to do what newly-elected Republican governors in other states have done and try to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap and invest program for power plants that has helped to significantly reduce the most polluting units in the region? Since its inception in 2008 through 2020, RGGI has brought about $246 million in proceeds to Connecticut alone.
Without saying whether he would stay or exit RGGI if elected, Stefanowski’s statement instead focused on the failure of TCI, implying one reason it was flawed was because it was not a national program.
“Not even our involvement in RGGI is enough since all involved states are east-coast based and the pollution problem for us is perpetually hitting us from the western U.S.,” Stefanowski’s statement reads.
Stefanowski also did not respond to a question about whether he would try to overturn the carbon-free grid law, the many climate change-combatting components of the Connecticut Clean Air Act, or Connecticut’s longstanding adherence to California’s tighter motor vehicle emissions standards. But in an interview with CT Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas in June, he faulted Lamont for setting the carbon-free goal.
“They know they’re never going to be carbon neutral by 2040. And they focus on a broad political statement that everybody rallies around, rather than digging into how we’re going to do it,” he said. (Carbon neutral and carbon free are different concepts.)
Stefanowski said he favors renewable energy projects but he said little about offshore wind specifically, focusing instead on the cost overruns in the State Pier renovation project, which is intended to help the state gain a stronger foothold in the offshore wind industry. It is unclear if he would continue the project or support the state’s growing procurement of offshore wind.
He has not offered a position on solar power or on the Connecticut-led push to reform New England grid operations to allow more renewable power at a lower price. Nor has he weighed in on the state’s waste disposal crisis.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, didn’t know any details of Stefanowski’s environmental policies. “I don’t know when it comes to environmental or climate issues, I don’t,” Candelora said when asked if he knows where Stefanowski stands.
Candelora and others, including the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, have repeatedly brought up the showdown over TCI in their objections to certain Lamont energy policies related to climate change — mainly those involving the cost of gasoline and electricity.
“I personally am not overly enamored of the governor’s policies,” Candelora said. He pointed to what he thinks was a rush to invest in electric bus fleets without proven technology and concerns about the additional power that likely will be needed for EVs more broadly as more and more go into use. “Leaping before looking,” he said.
“I don’t think the general public is really paying attention right now to energy policy. I think what they look at is the rising prices at the gas pump. You have some people that believe it’s intentional to push people to renewables. You have others that are just angry they have to pay so much,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of emotion around policy but not necessarily such thoughtful discussion.”
Lamont is not shy about cheerleading for his record, and to some degree, his predecessor’s. Lamont points to the deal to keep the Millstone nuclear power station, the single largest source of carbon-free power on the New England grid, operating for another decade. That deal was initiated by Gov. Dannell Malloy; Lamont finished it.
The initial offshore wind procurements were also in the Malloy administration, though they ramped up under Lamont along with the port expansions in New London and Bridgeport, though both have had their problems. New London, in particular, now faces large cost overruns and questions related to contracts signed under Malloy.
Lamont also notes that it was his administration that restored the funds the legislature took from the Energy Efficiency Fund and the Green Bank during the Malloy years.
He credited the Biden administration for making resources available but said states still need to take the lead on climate change policies and implementation. He also cited his record on working with neighboring states, which gave Connecticut an edge against powerhouse states like New York and New Jersey in competition for offshore wind work. And he faulted Republicans for not recognizing the urgency of combating climate change even if they acknowledge it exists.
“There’s always a reason to put off doing the right thing,” Lamont said. “I think it’s a uniquely important time to be doing the right thing on the environment. You look at Puerto Rico. You look at Florida. You look at the drought. You look at the fires. I think people understand that it’s not a problem at the end of the century. They understand it’s a problem now.”
Not mentioned by Lamont, but widely considered a smart move, was the hiring of Marissa Gillett to chair the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, PURA. She has taken an expansive view of her role and pushed to modernize electric utilities. At the same time, PURA under Gillett’s leadership has advocated for updated and streamlined processes for incorporating renewable energy and pushed for lower rates and accountability from utilities with spotty records responding to major storms over the last four years.
Looking ahead, Lamont said he’d like to see the state incorporate more hydropower into its carbon-free mix, along with the nuclear and offshore wind, though the latter is still several years away.
“But the biggest priority I’ve got for the next four years is moving our internal combustion-driven transportation sector over to carbon free, probably electric, maybe some hydrogen when it comes to the trucks,” he said.
Do people care?
The governor knows these issues may not be what drives people when they vote, however. Why is a threat so pervasive, that is getting worse and that has such dire consequences, so predictably ignored?
“I think it’s the frog not knowing that the water is slowly boiling. I think we respond to disasters,” he said.
The numbers tell the story. A Quinnipiac poll in May on the governor’s race showed only 5% of registered voters name the environment as the most important issue in their choice for governor. A September poll of likely voters, in which the category was changed to “climate change,” placed it third as “the most urgent issue facing Connecticut today.” But at 8%, climate change still ranked far below inflation at 32% and taxes at 20%. And in a poll released Oct. 24, it had fallen even farther to fifth place — down to 7%, behind inflation at 37%, taxes at 13% and abortion and crime each a percentage point higher than climate change.
This reflected research done in July by Beacon Research for the Environmental Voter Project in battleground states, when the focus was on long-term priorities. A recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll found that climate change was considered very important or one of the most important issues in Congress by about 50% of registered voters. But it still ranked last among seven issues.
Among young voters, climate change is often a huge issue, according to research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. But this year, abortion and gun violence may play more of a decisive role for that age group.
Andy McIndoo can speak to this from two perspectives. At 31, he can relate to the view from young voters. As a political consultant with Tucker Green Consulting, with most of his clients in Connecticut, he can see how climate change plays in real time and if it’s even moving the political needle this year.
“To give a short answer, I would say no,” he said. And for Lamont, even with a record that McIndoo thinks is impressive? “If you were to take three points from his administration — run on three of them, I don’t think his work on the environment would be included.”
People are more concerned about other things right now; climate change is in the background and feels almost too big to tackle. And in a governor’s race, young voters want to know their candidate cares about it, “but it just does not rise to that top issue tier,” McIndoo said.
In an actual storm, the focus is on the utility’s response to power outages and holding them accountable, even though the bigger problem that’s creating it is probably more important, McIndoo said.
“The easiest way to explain it — it’s like it’s this existential angst and you almost don’t want to deal with it.”
Lamont admits that it’s not the first topic on people’s minds. “But I think in terms of what our obligations are as a people, and my obligation as steward of the state. It’s not just about the next five years, but really is about the next generation. We’ve got to continue to do the right thing.”