From DEP to DEEP: A new state department opens for business

This morning, when state employees stroll into the Italian-style brick and glazed tile 1920 building at 79 Elm Street in Hartford that once housed an insurance company, the bronze sign over the entrance will still read Department of Environmental Protection. The guard at the front desk will do his job no differently than ever, and the view of Bushnell Park will be summery and green as it always is this time of year.

Everything will be the same–yet nothing will.

Today is day one of the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – a merger of the old DEP, the Department of Public Utilities Control, the energy policy division of the Office of Policy and Management and a few other bits and pieces. But more than simple consolidation, the new DEEP represents a fundamentally new approach to energy and environmental policy in Connecticut.

“Both the energy and environment people are going to need in my department to be thinking about the economic and the jobs implications and the economic growth impacts of the choices we make,” said Dan Esty, the DEP commissioner, who today transitions to DEEP commissioner.

Esty was hired by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to wrench a department that had been viewed by business as obstuctionist and narrowly-focused into one with a series of big-stakes mandates: Change how energy is provided, lower costs, clean and protect the environment, address climate change and make all of it into the top economic driver in the state.

“Job one is to build a team and job two is to draft an energy strategy,” Esty said. “We’re thinking about the big issues of structure and the little issues of logo and name. We don’t even know what our name is yet. Is it D-E-E-P or DEEP?”

Whatever-it’s-called was created in a massive legislative package of energy and environmental initiatives that Esty called “the most important breakthrough in energy policy that has occurred in the United States in the last five years.”

It comes with a $183-million budget (about $78 million from state funds) and more than 850 employees–before cuts to help plug the state’s budget hole. It also comes with a new financing structure called the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, often referred to as a green bank–which as of today replaces the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.

It includes dramatic shifts in responsibility: Creating a comprehensive energy plan and taking over electricity procurement from the utilities; a system for renewable energy in which technologies compete against each other for funds; and many energy efficiency programs.

That energy emphasis has raised concerns from environmental groups that classic environmental issues may get lost in the shuffle.

“We’re definitely keeping our eye on it,” said Roger Reynolds of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “To make sure that the environmental function continues to be a strong and vigorous part of that agency.”

Esty said both areas would be treated equally. “And even more so, we’re going to work at the interconnection between these issues in a way that no one had before.”

DEEP will have three divisions. Two are from the old DEP: environmental protection, handling things like pollution control, and environmental conservation for parks, forest and wildlife. The third, energy, includes utility regulation and an energy and technology policy bureau.

Regulation will come under a new Public Utilities Regulation Authority–streamlined for a 21st century deregulated environment from the DPUC with three directors instead of the DPUC’s five commissioners. No word yet on who is making the cut. Calls to the DPUC were not returned.

Even with budget cuts, Esty plans to hire a department deputy, a bureau chief to handle energy and technology, and must, by law, hire an electricity procurement manager.

The job of putting policy people in the correct slots so that they avoid duplication, but mesh where needed, has fallen to Jessie Stratton, the director of policy development who was hired only a couple of months ago. An old hand at policy, having served as a state legislator on the environment committee for 14 years and then an environmental and energy advocate, her days have been spent with organizational charts matching lists of responsibilities with the people who need to do them. “A lot of it does actually fall into place relatively easily,” she said. “It supports the logic of combining these functions: ‘Oh of course, why was that separated out to begin with?'”

For others, transition–underway since before the legislation to form DEEP was even filed–has been a relentless march of nuts and bolts tasks. “Everyone’s looking at the high level and how wonderful it is,” said Steve Fish, director of DEP’s office of information management. “My staff is down there in the trenches making these things happen.”

That means getting everyone on the same computer and telephone systems (PURA’s email won’t be switched over in time) as well as overseeing millions of hard-copy records and beginning a major transformation to the paperless department Esty has pledged to have in two years.

The financial office has to get everyone on the same systems, a task complicated by timing that coincides with the end of the fiscal year and by the 126 federal grants to DEP from nine different agencies plus stimulus funds transferring over from OPM. Just getting the department name changed from DEP to DEEP so that financial flow doesn’t get interrupted requires a pile of paperwork for the IRS.

As for the eleven energy division OPM employees, they’ll actually report to their old offices today. It’s still undecided whether they’ll move to Elm Street or into the New Britain offices that have housed the DPUC and will continue to house the PURA.

David Kalafa, a policy development coordinator who’s been handling stimulus grants and developing a database to track energy efficiency in state buildings, has already calculated that moving to New Britain will save him $660 a year in gasoline. Wherever his desk winds up, he’s looking forward to new challenges after 23 years at OPM.

“The concept of centralizing energy policy in one agency makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Over the years there’s been a lot of complaints about fragmented energy policy in the state. This should improve coordination and efficiency.”

And that’s the first economic step according to Esty. “Energy is a $6 trillion a year part of the global economy. You don’t have to have a very big slice of that to have a lot of very successful, very profitable businesses,” he said. “Whether the transition to clean energy occurs in the next 10 or 20 years or over the next 40 or 50 years, it’s going to occur. And those that lead the way are going to be very successful from an economic point of view.

“We can’t afford to let slip by.”