Creation of DEEP a move toward environmental health, economic growth

In proposing a merged Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) with Dan Esty as its head, Governor Malloy took a bold step toward implementing his stated vision that Connecticut’s environmental health and economic future are fundamentally and inextricably linked.

Governor Malloy deserves credit for taking action so early in his tenure to pull together energy planning, energy permitting, energy efficiency, and renewable energy investments under a single agency.  A growing chorus of legislative leaders, business leaders and environmental advocates has been calling for such a consolidation of our balkanized state energy planning and implementation responsibilities.

The consolidation of these critical functions with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is significant.  This approach recognizes the essential links between the choices we make regarding energy policy and investment and our ability to maintain a healthy environment for our citizens while establishing a secure economic foundation.  Sound energy investments will make our air healthier to breathe, help us reach our mandated state greenhouse gas pollution reductions, create thousands of jobs, and save our state budget millions, putting real dollars back into our state’s economy.

Another major challenge will be to re-invigorate the agency’s critical core environmental protection mission in challenging budget times   As the Governor has noted, the DEP has been starved for resources for 20 years.  The hard facts are that the DEP has dozens fewer workers now than it did in 1988, with far more responsibilities.  Contrary to all the rhetoric about bloated state bureaucracy, this state agency has shrunk over the past 22 years.

A well-functioning DEP is critical to both the environment and the economy and the lack of resources has had its impact on both.  Reports have shown that enforcement and inspections have decreased by 60 percent over the last 13 years.  In addition, while DEP reports that it has increased its permitting efficiency by up to 80 percent in recent years, it also has concluded substantial new resources would be needed to meet time frames sought by businesses.  It is a very positive sign that Ben Barnes, the Governor’s budget czar, recently stated that this consolidation was undertaken for primarily for policy reasons, not cost savings.

Protection and preservation of our natural resources also impacts the economy.  Long Island Sound brings $8.5 billion the regional economy annually.  The DEEP could spearhead a new bi-state Long Island Sound recovery plan that revolves around innovative clean water job creation and stormwater control.  Such a program would address bacterial pollution that requires us to close beaches and shellfish beds and nitrogen pollution that creates a depleted dead zone.

We can manage our state and private forests better for wildlife, water resource protection, and timber production and provide our state parks with creative financial support.  Allowing the DEEP to retain and re-invest a portion of its fees is one way to encourage efficient government and provide critical resources for environmental stewardship.

The Governor has taken an important step toward integrating Connecticut’s environmental and energy policies and implementing bold leadership.  Coming choices about the proposed Department’s budget, staffing and priorities will shape Connecticut’s environment and economy for years, if not decades, to come.

Don Strait is executive director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment

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