A confirmation hearing turns into a seminar with Professor Esty

Daniel C. Esty, the governor’s nominee to oversee environmental and energy policy in Connecticut, weathered extensive questioning by Republicans at a confirmation hearing Thursday about his support for federal cap-and-trade legislation.

After 2½ hours, legislators learned two things: Esty does not intend to push a carbon tax in Connecticut; and the noted author and Yale professor never tires of explaining why such a national policy is a good idea.

“A good bit of this might make sense at a national level, and not at a state level,” Esty said. “If you could wave a wand at the federal level and get some of this stuff, it would be fantastic.”

The legislature’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee concluded its seminar with the professor by unanimously recommending his confirmation to the House of Representatives as the commissioner of environmental protection.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated Esty exactly a month ago as his choice to lead a department that Malloy hopes will be remade as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

It was Esty’s expanded portfolio that filled the hearing room. Spectators included energy lobbyists and Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee.

Esty, 51, an energy adviser to President Obama’s campaign, grew animated as Republicans led by Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, quizzed him about the nine books and numerous articles he has written about environmental policy.

Fasano told Esty he had read one of his recent books, “Green to Gold, How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage.”

“The subtitle tells the whole story. You don’t have to read it,” Esty replied, smiling.

The professor seemed surprised after the hearing when Fasano said he hoped Esty, who was a high-ranking EPA official during the administration of the first President Bush, didn’t feel under attack by the GOP’s steady questioning about his support for a carbon tax or “harm charge” on greenhouse gas emissions.

“I didn’t feel under attack at all,” Esty told Fasano.

To the contrary, Esty said he thought the exchange would make for educational television on CT-N, the public affairs network that records and broadcasts many hearings and other legislative proceedings.

Esty faces what may be the most challenging job in the state government. Malloy wants him to place Connecticut at the forefront of green jobs and clean energy, while reducing energy costs that are the highest in the continental United States.

Generating the former often comes at higher costs, since clean and renewable energy sources still cost significantly more than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

“I think we have actually a triple challenge,” Esty said. “We have to, on the energy side, find a way to ensure how we manage energy is helping to reduce the budget deficit, not increase it. We’ve got to find a way to bring down electric rates. And we want to position clean energy as a platform for economic growth.”

While Esty is doing all that, he also is being asked to continue efforts begun by his two immediate predecessors to streamline the much-maligned environmental regulatory process in Connecticut. Esty said the department has made progress, but the machinery still moves too slowly.

The department needs to redirect its resources so that applications for permits with the biggest potential impact on the environment get the most attention.

“The core issue is going to be risk,” he said.

Regulators now have a goal of 60 days to issue a sufficiency report on permit applications, essentially telling applicants if their paperwork is complete. Esty said that should be shrunk to two weeks.

But he also wants to put pressure on the environmental consultants who prepare those applications by posting on the DEP’s web site the consultants’ performance history on submitting complete or incomplete paperwork.

The questions did not come just from Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven,  pressed him on the speed of permit reviews, brownfield remediation and the delayed dredging of Bridgeport Harbor, in part, over questions about where to dump the dredged material.

Esty said the department must find a safe, timely way to allow the dredging, and he already is working on brownfields, meeting last week with 25 business leaders.

But much of the questioning came from Republicans concerned about his advocacy of policies that might drive up the cost of energy.

Fasano said some of Esty’s writings called for the imposition on fees – last year, Esty wrote an article in the Huffington Post proposing the imposition of a “harm charge” of $4 per ton of greenhouse gas emissions, a charge that would increase by $4 annually until reaching $84 per ton in 2032. The charge would make renewable energy more competitive and generate a revenue stream to lower the payroll tax.

“Using the money raised to cut payroll taxes would broaden the base of support for climate change action since any family that did its part to reduce its own energy consumption would come out ahead. And lowering payroll taxes would also encourage businesses to hire more workers and thus provide a significant economic stimulus,” he wrote.

“Would that be a policy you would like to see in Connecticut?” Fasano asked.

Esty replied that policies he proposed for the federal government would not be appropriate on the state level, but he would encourage innovation with what he called a diverse portfolio of incentives.

“You want to have a technology race,” Fasano said, then wondered if Esty would be determining which technologies end up with the state’s backing.

“It’s not up to a commissioner or a government to pick winners. It’s up to the marketplace,” Esty replied.

His answers satisfied the committee.

Esty said after the hearing that the inquiries were appropriate, the exchanges stimulating. He complimented Fasano on his preparation — and suggested additional reading.

“I felt, first of all, impressed that we had so many representatives and senators digging into the substance of the issues,” Esty said. “I think we benefit when the public get these issues brought out and debated.”

Before leaving, he inquired when the hearing might be broadcast on CT-N.