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Environmental Groups Criticize DEEP Commissioner

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Daniel Esty (Courtesy DEEP)

Daniel Esty (Courtesy DEEP)

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By STEPHEN SINGER,  Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ When Daniel Esty became Connecticut’s first commissioner of a merged energy and environmental agency two years ago, environmentalists saw an opportunity for new high-profile renewable energy policies linked to a cleaner environment.

Esty, a former Yale professor of environmental law, has now become a lightning rod for criticism by environmentalists who say he’s fashioning state energy policies that suit business and few others.

The two sides– the Democratic administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and traditional environmentalist allies– agree on most energy and environmental policies. But the Malloy administration’s emphasis on business-based solutions has alienated advocates who say more direct government action is required.

“The old hammer to the industry, the so-called command and control regulation … has limited value in getting to the next stage of progress,” Esty said.

Malloy’s policies are turning away from an “outdated view” of protecting solar and wind power from competition and instead aim to promote competing sources of energy that are expected to drive down costs, he said.

Environmentalists are frustrated that Malloy is backing changes to renewable power rules favoring large-scale hydropower from Canada, boosting the state’s use of natural gas and say he’s insufficiently funding energy efficiency programs.

“I can’t use any other word but disappointed with the clean energy policies,” Roger Smith, Connecticut co-director of Clean Water Action, an environmental group. “I think we were really happy to have someone with Commissioner Esty’s stature here in Connecticut, with his academic and professional expertise. We were looking forward to having some leadership in Connecticut.”

Esty said environmental activists and Malloy broadly agree on most of the governor’s environmental policies, such as boosting small-scale renewable energy, but differ in a few areas, such as a renewed emphasis on hydropower from Canada. But instead of being “hung up” on polices requiring or encouraging utilities to supply a minimum portion of electricity from designated renewable power such as solar or wind, he said, the state should instead seek long-term power contracts that help push down energy costs.

As mayor of Stamford before being elected governor, Malloy worked with business on numerous issues, Esty said. “And I would say there’s a fundamental new approach to both environment and energy that Malloy has lived and he asked me to follow.”

“Another element of what the governor asked me to do was to really harness market forces for the benefit of the ratepayer with lower costs,” he said. “The 20th-century view had the government doing all the work.”

Republicans also are finding fault, criticizing fundraising by Esty’s wife, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn. Connecticut GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. rapped the congresswoman for accepting money from energy companies that are regulated by a state agency headed by her husband and said it appears to be a conflict for the commissioner.

“I think it is somewhat sexist to suggest that people are giving her money to try and influence me,” the commissioner said. “I think they’re giving her money to try to get attention from her. She has a very important federal job.”

Funding to promote energy efficiency, which contributed much to cutting the cost of power, is one fault line in the relationship between Esty and environmentalists. William Dornbos, Connecticut director of Environment Northeast, a group that advocates for energy efficiency, said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is falling short of its own goal to increase spending for energy efficiency from $105 million a year to $206 million.

“We were pretty excited about the Malloy administration and Commissioner Esty’s nomination,” Dornbos said. “From the beginning we thought their policy goals were the right ones. It feels like this last (legislative) session we’ve had a parting of the ways on what approaches are going to lead to the best outcomes.”

Esty said funding for energy efficiency is due to be increased by June, but because money would come from ratepayers, the matter is before state regulators.

Connecticut’s top business group is backing Malloy’s energy plan to boost natural gas use among residences and business and legislation to boost hydropower power. Eric Brown, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, criticized environmentalists.

“Both with respect to energy policy and environmental policy, there’s a long history of environmental groups taking a position that’s devoid of any consideration of costs,” he said.

Connecticut will benefit from natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania and neighboring New York and hydropower in Canada. Both are cleaner and cheaper sources of energy, he said.

“An objective observer would say this is a no-brainer,” Brown said. “What’s the debate?”

Esty said the Malloy administration’s energy policy is drawing criticism because it’s new.

“It’s a different approach than a lot in the environmental community grew up with in the 20th century,” he said. “Some of them are evolving and get it and understand why we’re doing this. Others don’t.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)    

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