In any given Connecticut legislative session, the Energy and Technology and Environment Committees wrestle with some of the most intractable, complex and downright hard-to-understand problems on, well, the planet.
You know — climate change, energy, environmental justice — things like that.
This year, add one more item to that list — bears.
The reality is there are a whole lot more black bears in the state than there used to be and, after one attacked a 10-year-old in Morris, figuring out what to do about them has catapulted to a top priority.
“There are other things that are more important, but bears will get all the headlines,” said Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, newly minted co-chair of the Environment Committee.
Among the other more serious issues lawmakers must tackle are the state’s persistently high energy rates; the state’s worsening waste disposal problems, which both committees have identified as a top priority; and addressing environmental justice issues.
Although Lopes doesn’t think bears will overpower those concerns, some worry they will bigfoot other critical concerns.
Both committees are considered to have difficult subject matter, and Energy is often described as the most difficult in the legislature — and indeed this year, its membership is much smaller than in recent years. Both committees also have some newcomers in leadership positions, which can mean steep learning curves that slow committee work.
Among the biggest non-Ursus americanus issues:
The high cost of energy has been headline news for years. As we’ve explained, most of the current price increase is caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has slashed global natural gas supplies, and New England’s outsized reliance on natural gas. Resolving the problem for the long term involves many components far beyond what the Connecticut legislature can do on its own.
All of which is to warn anyone who flicks a light switch in Connecticut — do not expect legislators to wave a magic wand to permanently lower the cost of energy and solve all the problems with our system.
“People are going to be hot and bothered, and we’re working on these things” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the new co-chair of the Energy Committee. Steinberg, who has served on Energy since 2011, said the legislature needs to “take a deep breath and pause and do this right and not react emotionally.”
“People aren’t going to want to hear that, but it may be the only prudent answer we have for them in this particular time frame.”
Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, starting his third term both in the legislature and as co-chair of Energy, took an equally cautionary stance.
“We will try to do the most we can. I’m all for big ideas. That said, I live in the world of the practical,” he said. “There are no quick solutions. Everything’s going to take its time.”
Even so, dozens of bills have been filed. Though there are few details yet, the bills propose to do everything from requiring legislative approval for rate increases to prohibiting the stock of any public utility company from being traded on a stock exchange.
The co-chairs say they are waiting to see what the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection files. Among the likely starting points for action this session are continuing some temporary solutions, such as extending a moratorium on utility shut-offs, a holdover problem from the pandemic that is now compounded by the very high rates.
The serious longer-term legislative targets are likely to focus on updating older statutes, such as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, which set greenhouse gas reduction goals that many feel are too lax and in need of stronger enforcement. The committee could even tackle deregulation language itself, now a quarter-century old. The goal would be to align those energy policy revisions with the many efforts already underway to overhaul and modernize how energy is regulated and purchased.
Among those ongoing efforts — many of which are out of the legislature’s reach — are more than a dozen grid modernization concepts working their way through the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Nine of the original 11 are complete. Necessarily the last of those will be revamping the utilities’ rate and policy structures based on components that need to be in place first.
A regional effort to get grid operator ISO New England to change its power purchasing practices is likely to come to fruition in a couple of years. But its final form, along with desperately needed transmission upgrades and additions — especially for new renewable energy including offshore wind — requires federal approval too.
“I think it is never a bad idea to examine existing practices and see whether the goals you set out were actually achieved, and if they were, fine; if they weren’t, why not?” said committee member Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme.
She and others point to the many fixed, so-called public policy charges on ratepayer bills, some of which were set by the legislature and in theory could be reset. “Maybe people should know that, hey, one of the reasons your bill is so high is because of stuff your elected representative actually voted on in terms of how the state has to procure power.”
A proposal by the two ranking members on the Energy Committee, Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, in his first term on the committee, and Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford, would seek to move at least some of the fixed charges, which PURA is already examining as part of grid modernization, to the general fund. That would require statutory changes by the legislature.
The GOP proposal unveiled during a press conference last week would allow nuclear and hydropower to be classified as renewables. And it advocates a big picture look at the power procurement process, just as some Democrats would like. The GOP also wants to separate PURA from DEEP, an argument that has been heard annually since 2011 when the two were merged.
“My attitude is the same one that I’ve heard Sen. Needleman and Rep. Steinberg take, which is everything’s on the table,” Fazio said during an interview prior to the GOP press conference. “The goals are affordability, reliability and environmental standards. We want all those things first and foremost. We need to make sure that in 10 years if you push the light switch, you’re going to be totally confident that the lights are going to go on. And that’s an open question.”
Fazio has also advocated for more natural gas pipeline capacity — most recently when the GOP energy proposal was announced, as well as in a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont in December.
“Natural gas is inevitably part of the grid solution,” he said. “Because, A, it’s a large portion of our energy portfolio now. And B, it’s not obvious how we’re going to replace that source with something that is reliable.”
That sentiment has been all but discounted by state policy and the move to clean energy but remains a fear of environmental advocates, who have their own laundry list of energy and environmental legislative priorities.
Charles Rothenberger, clean energy attorney at Save the Sound, said he worries about angry constituents screaming about their electricity bills without understanding why they’re going up or who’s responsible. “The easy thing will be to blame all of these investments in clean energy, even though it’s our over-dependence on natural gas that is driving these rate increases,” he said.
Both Steinberg and Needleman agreed it would be wise to seize the moment now when ratepayers and state leaders are paying attention to energy issues to educate them and begin the slow process of reevaluating the system. They also want to hear from PURA and the utilities about what kinds of legislative changes might be needed to make their systems more flexible.
What to do about Connecticut’s long-fractured waste disposal system has been a topic of discussion for years, but those conversations became more urgent after the closure last summer of the state’s largest waste-to-energy plant, which has increased the need for municipalities to ship trash out of state. Despite the urgency, legislative change has so far been incremental.
The two committees are considering joint legislation, much as the Environment and Transportation committees did last year for the Connecticut Clean Air Act, to tackle the issue this year and are waiting for input from DEEP. But a few broad disagreements may have to be smoothed out first.
The most significant is whether to pursue a statewide solution to the waste problem or continue with small changes. More immediately, lawmakers must agree on whether the first priority is to replace the closed plant or to focus on reducing the overall volume of garbage by diverting food waste — thought to be a quarter to a third of the total volume.
Environment Co-Chair Joe Gresko, who is also a member of the Energy Committee, said his understanding was that DEEP, which would not make anyone available to be interviewed about its legislative priorities, would be submitting an agency bill that will expand food waste diversion pilot programs. Last October DEEP provided $5 million to 15 municipalities for food waste programs, many of which had already begun.
“I do not agree,” said Needleman, Energy co-chair, of maximizing waste reduction and diversion before building another plant. “I’m trying to be pragmatic about how much you’re going to change people’s behavior. How are you going to enforce that change? What are we going to actually do?”
Environment Co-Chair Lopes said he saw it as a combination of getting less waste into the system, expanding recycling, “and then of course, finding new and better ways to dispose of solid waste,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of little things more than one big thing that will solve this problem.”
Stephen Harding, R- Brookfield, senate ranking member on Environment, said waste management is the one issue he believes “absolutely, unequivocally” has to be tackled.
“I think we’ve taken some steps in years past in addressing it, but I think we need something far more comprehensive,” he said. “There are a lot of cases in which the state — the best thing they can do is get out of the way, but I don’t think this is one of those cases.”
All stopped short of supporting a statewide mandate for food waste separation. But many lawmakers called for faster permitting for anaerobic digesters, which turn food waste into energy. There are a few on farms and one large commercial operation in Southington that infamously took years to approve, nearly scuttling the whole project.
There is likely to be a strong effort to expand what’s known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR, in which a product’s manufacturer is also responsible for its disposal. EPR has faced a slog, often requiring multi-year efforts for lawmakers to add products to the still-short list of mattresses, paint and gas canisters. The focus this year will be on tires — again. It has failed multiple times, though Gresko is optimistic the tire industry is ready to go this year.
Tightening existing environmental justice law is back this year after an unsuccessful go-round in the last two sessions. In the interim, the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council (CEEJAC) has come into existence, though the ramp-up has been slow and an expected report or recommendations that would inform legislation has not materialized.
The fallback for legislators is likely to be a version of the last two failures, which would have given DEEP, where CEEJAC is housed, and the Siting Council the authority to deny permits to certain types of stationary polluting facilities (known in the law as “affecting” facilities) — such as power or waste treatment plants — in areas already burdened by such problems. Such areas tend to be low-income and minority communities. Neither the existing law nor proposed legislation would address building facilities like schools and low-income housing in areas that are already suffering from pollution.
While saying environmental justice should be a lens through which everything is viewed, or at least an environmental justice thread should be present, Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester and co vice-chair of Environment, said she wanted to put more teeth in the stand-alone law.
“I think that more than say DEEP has the ability to deny permits, I would like to see an EJ bill that requires DEEP to take serious consideration of both current and future cumulative polluting effects on vulnerable communities,” she said.
A coalition of about 75 environmental racial justice and health equity advocates, spearheaded by Alex Rodriguez, the environmental justice specialist at Save the Sound and a member of CEEJAC, have sent a letter to Lamont and the legislature detailing a dozen areas they’d like to see addressed in an updated law.
It includes a permitting change to prohibit DEEP and the Siting Council “from issuing permits that would increase cumulative environmental or public health impacts in already overburdened communities” and better public hearing access and community outreach that is multilingual if needed. It draws on similar laws recently enacted in New York and New Jersey.
“We want to improve accountability, permitting limitations, comprehensive application of the EJ law, cumulative impact analysis and funding for EJ programs,” Rodriguez said. “We want a permit application fee to fund the DEEP review process and environmental justice programs so that communities can access this money and conduct comprehensive outreach.”
Once again, the committee is waiting to hear from DEEP. Gresko expects the Department of Economic and Community Development to weigh in too.
“Their fear — I can hear it now,” Gresko said. “’You’re going to grind any potential economic development in the state of Connecticut to a halt because of the hoops you’re going to have to jump through for environmental justice.”
Other stray issues
Among other issues all but guaranteed to come up in one or both committees, broadband access will probably have the most traction, especially given that federal money is available to help those in rural areas and low-income populations.
But it’s not just stringing the fiber — it’s making sure people in apartments and underserved areas know the access is there and have the means to use it.
“So are there things we can do non-legislatively to educate people to promote everybody being hooked up?” Steinberg, co-chair of Energy, asked.
Cheeseman, also on Energy, said, aside from schools, inner cities and rural areas, “I think it’s often seniors, older people” who lack broadband access. She suggested using federal money to send community workers to homes to help those who don’t have computers or smart phones.
Energy labeling for homes so buyers and renters can have a sense of what a property’s energy costs could be is likely to come up again, as well. It’s failed on multiple occasions, including the last two sessions.
Environment Committee Co-Chair Lopes, who’s proposed this in the past on the housing committee, has refiled it, and he and others are also again pushing for a fossil fuel-free mandate for new construction. It’s also high up on the environmental advocates’ agenda.
There are dozens of other bills that may or may not see the light of day — but one is absolutely guaranteed.
Jokes aside, many bills have been filed, ranging from open bear hunting to teaching humans how to deal with them. The strength of feeling was apparent even at the introductory Environment Committee meeting, when Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, began advocating for one solution.
“I think things have not been done in the past addressing the feeding of wildlife,” Michel said. “I think that’s one of the main issues. I don’t see that going deep in the forest and killing bears … is going resolve any issues of —”
He was cut off by Gresko, the co-chair. “Let’s keep it to just saying hello. We’ll have plenty of time during the rest of the session,” he said.
Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, who represents nine towns in bear-heavy Litchfield County and is a member of both the Energy and Environment committees, learned firsthand last year how emotionally pitched the debate about bears can get when she submitted a bill to help farmers with nuisance wildlife.
“A couple of bears can decimate a cornfield, a Christmas tree farm, a blueberry farm. And these are small farms that can get wiped out by that,” she said.
“I received a lot of hate mail about how bloodthirsty I am and how I want to kill all the bears and use them as trophies. Some environmental groups played a role in that. And so I am asking them to, please, let’s have a policy conversation about this so that it doesn’t suck all the air out of the room and so that we can continue to address other important issues.”
She’s filed another bill this year — again with the provision for farmers, but also a statewide ban on intentional feeding.
“That includes a provision for people who aren’t intentionally feeding the bear. They’re just reckless. If they’re warned and do nothing — then it’s intentional.”
DEEP’s data show by far most of the bear reports in the state are of bears going after trash and bird feeders. In 2022, there were sightings reported in 158 of the state’s 169 cities and towns.
Horn’s not proposing a bear hunt but does point out Connecticut is the only New England state with a significant bear population that doesn’t have a hunt.
Ranking member Harding, whose 18-town senate district covers even more of that western heart of bear country, said it simply: “We have to address it; it has to be addressed holistically.”
He said he would support bear hunting as one tool within that holistic approach.
“I’m not naive enough to think that’s the only answer to resolve this problem — it’s not,” he said. “If that’s the tool that the experts point to and say ‘this is going to help address their population; this is going to limit the dangerous human bear interactions,’ then I would.”
It will likely fall to Gresko to tame the many sides of the argument, and he offered, maybe not so facetiously, “I wish I can tell hunters I would give them a list of invasive species that they can go and run in.”
“We need to do something this session,” he said, noting that it would be a hybrid approach and that he would probably have to look at some of the hunting suggestions — “much to the chagrin of the animal rights people.”
“What I don’t want to have happen is for somebody to go out the middle of the woods somewhere and shoot some bear that is minding its own business,” he said. “If we can somehow figure out how to handle the bears that are habituated, which have ended up being the problem, then I’m all ears.”