The governor stands behind his controversial commissioner

State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, right, takes a tour of the Norwich Wastewater Treatment Plant with Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda earlier this year.
State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, right, takes a tour of the Norwich Wastewater Treatment Plant with Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda earlier this year. Tim Martin / The Day Buy Photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave a vote of confidence last week to his commissioner of energy and environmental protection, Daniel C. Esty, unexpectedly joining him at a press briefing to promote the administration's environmental record during the contentious 2013 legislative session.

Esty, a noted author and industry consultant who took a two-year leave of absence from Yale University in 2011 to introduce market-driven energy policies pushed by Malloy, often to the discomfort of environmentalists, said Yale has extended his leave until July 1, 2014.

"I'll stay as long as the governor wants to have me," Esty said.

"Good answer," Malloy said.

If Esty departs the administration at the end of his extended leave next summer, he would be defusing a source of controversy in the re-election of his wife, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.

The National Republican Congressional Campaign already has run web ads attacking the first-term congresswoman over raising campaign funds from people employed in industries regulated by her husband.

The commissioner has been both a featured star for the administration and a source of grief. His participation in a conference call with stock analysts on the eve of a scheduled vote on renewable energy legislation in April provoked an outcry from environmentalists and a postponement of the vote by the Senate.

A transcript of the call showed Esty revealed nothing that hadn't already been public, but the commissioner apologized for being inattentive to the timing, making a hasty round of visits to legislative leaders.

Esty seemed to assume a lower profile at the Capitol after the gaffe, but he challenged that view at last Tuesday's news conference, saying he remained engaged in the administration's efforts to win passage of two energy policy bills, one of which passed handily over the objections of environmentalists.

"I was out there working every day, talking to the legislative leaders," Esty said.

Seated side-by-side at a conference table in Esty's office, the commissioner and governor brushed aside environmentalists' concerns about the administration's revisions to a longstanding renewable energy policy.

Malloy said he saw no damage to his relationship with the environmental community.

"I don't think that's the case. I think when you do a lot of things, there's something for everybody to complain about," Malloy said. "Everybody tells me they want change, they just don't want the thing that they like to be changed."

Environmentalists opposed the administration's proposals for a more market-driven approach to meeting the renewable portfolio standard, which requires the state to rely on renewable energy for 20 percent of its electricity by 2020.

"We have the highest standard requirement in New England," Malloy said, noting Maine's goal is just 5 percent. "We need to access cleaner, cheaper, more reliable sources."

The governor and commissioner said the old renewable portfolio standard had been a failure, leading the state to purchase renewable power generated out of state, often using relatively dirty sources such as the burning of wood refuse and other "biomass" debris.

Malloy and Esty said opposition to the revisions grew from a refusal by environmentalists to acknowledge the old policy's failings.

"I think what you saw there were some folks that hadn't really updated their thinking from where they might have been 25 years ago or 15 years ago, when the renewable portfolio standard was put into place," Esty said.

Malloy was a surprise participant at Esty's review of the 2013 session, joining the commissioner in his office a block from the State Capitol.

Malloy and Esty said a productive session for environmental legislation, including $1 billion in bonding for clean-water projects, was obscured by the late-session controversy over the renewable portfolio standard and an administration proposal to raise $80 million by auctioning off rights to serve electric customers.

The auction idea was abandoned in the face of consumer opposition led by AARP, but the administration won passage of the new renewable portfolio standard by wide margins in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Environmentalists complained that the administration's revisions weakened Connecticut's commitment to creating a market for renewable energy by allowing well-established hydroelectric power to meet its renewable portfolio standard under some circumstances.

Malloy and Esty said hydro power was meant to prod solar, wind and other renewable energy producers to be competitive.

"One of the things that's needed to make these renewables really a central part of future energy of the state of Connecticut and the country and world is for them to become more cost competitive," Esty said. "We were really driving innovation with the approach we took."

When the renewable energy standard was created, the assumption was that the solar and wind industries would need protection from competition, Esty said.

"That's outdated theory. Now you want them subjected to constant innovation pressure and the need to cut costs and to change practices," Esty said. "So we were setting up a structure that has hydro looming on the horizon in a way that will ensure that the wind power guys, the solar power guys will step up and take their projects to a new level."

This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, non-profit news organization covering government, politics and public policy in the state.

Daniel C. Esty
Daniel C. Esty
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