Big agenda, and a few battles, brewing for energy and environment in 2012

After the bumper 2011 legislative session, you might expect a modest wish list from Connecticut legislators, environmentalists and conservation advocates for 2012.

Not happening. Nearly a year after those groups and the Malloy administration began an energy and environmental reform quest that resulted in the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, an unprecedented comprehensive energy bill designed to upend energy business as usual, scads of funding for clean water projects, commitments to open space and a host of other initiatives, all parties are back asking for more.

And a lot more — legislative and not — have agendas that, while not in conflict, don’t always overlap.

“Number one,” said Jamie Howland, Environment Northeast‘s director of climate and energy analysis, “Is a sustainable funding stream for oil heat efficiency.”

That actually could be the biggest area of agreement among advocates, legislators and the administration. But get ready for a fight.

The issue is that energy efficiency loans have not been made consistently available to folks with oil heat — about half the homes in the state — who want to upgrade their equipment. Energy efficient gas and electric heat systems can be funded through fees on electric and gas bills. For the last two years federal stimulus funds were available for oil systems, but those are gone. A little additional funding has come with a more than 9 percent interest rate, in contrast to around 3 percent for electric and gas heat upgrades.

Some, including DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty, are suggesting a fee on oil.

“Assessment. Careful what you call it,” Howland said. “It’s a sensitive subject.”

As evidenced by Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association President Gene Guilford. “That’s not where we are yet,” he said of a fee, assessment, tax, whatever it’s called.

Guilford said his organization has had ongoing talks with Esty and others, but he doesn’t buy the argument that oil customers — who, he points out, also are electric customers — can’t benefit from a fee that they’re also paying.

“What’s not apparent to us is why we need to have new fee, when everyone is already paying a fee,” he said, further noting his distaste for a $500,000 cap on oil efficiency funds in last session’s legislation. “We are still talking; we are still listening.”

What he may be hearing is a fair amount of support from both sides of the aisle. “I would fight that tooth and nail,” said Sen. Kevin Witkos, R- Canton, ranking member on the Energy and Technology Committee, echoing the sentiments of many colleagues and further suggesting the 2 percent generation tax as an alternative. “Let’s get real, folks,” he said. “We’re going to start talking taxing oil in the middle of winter?”

How efficient is a building?

Another frequently mentioned priority is legislation to require disclosure of a building’s energy efficiency rating to potential buyers, or even renters.

“If you have a right to know the nutrition value of food you buy, why not have the right to know the energy efficiency of a building you’re buying,” said Roger Reynolds of Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has tools to rate commercial buildings, and advocates estimate the cost would be similar to current home inspections for residential properties. But if funding is needed: “Now that we’re no longer raiding our energy efficiency fund on a yearly basis,” Reynolds said, referring to previous administrations’ practices, “We should be able to get the money from there.”

Transit-oriented development

CFE and others will also be pushing transit-oriented development — known as TOD — building communities around transit hubs to promote sustainable growth. Reynolds would like the legislature to create a framework and funding mechanisms for communities that want to do it.

The Nature Conservancy has a small, but fairly specific priority list, according to David Sutherland, director of government relations. One is to make sure the community investment act, funded through real estate recording fees, is used for what it was intended — open space purchase, farmland preservation, affordable housing and historic preservation — and not diverted as has occurred in the past.

Another is to make sure funding for clean water is maintained. “There was very significant funding the legislature approved in that two-year budget,” Sutherland said of the budget passed in 2011. “But changes can be made in the second year of a budget, so we’re watching that.”

The Conservancy is also looking at ways to promote water conservation, a difficult task given the reality that the more water customers use, the more money a water company makes. And it’s looking at new ways for communities to assess and include in their planning the potential for coastal flooding and sea level rise.

Jobs and electricity

That issue, and the issue of electric grid disruptions, came to the fore during Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, and have the potential to push other energy and environmental concerns off the table in the coming months.

“Right now providing reliable electricity and providing jobs are probably the two primary concerns,” Sutherland said. “I think the legislature has shown the ability to look at other issues as well during a difficult legislative session, but sure, it’s a concern.”

Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee, said he expects that Gov. Dannel Malloy would take the lead on policies that come out of the various panels examining storm response. But he said: “We expect the utilities are going to ask for rate increases to pay for those storms. The worst thing to do is to give those rate increases without performance standards.”

Meyer said legislators will step in to ensure there are standards. But he and others said they don’t think it will shut down progress on other fronts.

For Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, his longtime focus on the state’s high electric rates remains, though storm response is paramount. “We need to, as a state, try to fix what went wrong with both of the recent storms and try to put in place safeguards so citizens will not be left without power for days on end,” he said. “I think that will be a large part of what we do in terms of energy in the next session.”

McKinney said he’s less interested in punishing the utilities than he is in exploring a way to allow state and municipal workers to do power line work, reinforcing the existing infrastructure, as well as looking at on-site generation and micro-grid alternatives.

“All of that needs to be really addressed and to the extent we need to have legislation, we’re going to look at that,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, vice-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee whose district was hard-hit by Irene. She said pushback from constituents will keep storm response a priority. “It really does rise to the top of the pile.”

But she also ticked off a list of other priorities, including the oil fuel funding issue, getting last session’s energy bill fully operational along with program tweaks to a few provisions and, especially, establishing the funding streams from the newly formed green bank — the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority.

A more efficient DEEP

Esty has his own to-do list for the coming year. “The number one agenda item,” he said. “Transformation.”

Not quite as apocalyptic as it sounds, it’s Esty’s name for streamlining operations, adapting the “lean” concept of efficient manufacturing for his department, faster permitting processes and a host of other economical changes right down to hunting and fishing license procedures and accepting credit cards at state parks.

But that’s just one of Esty’s six priority categories. The others: Implementing last session’s legislation; a push to further reform brownfields remediation; tackling waste disposal, especially the state’s low 30 percent recycling rate; finding new ways and new partners to invest in open space; and developing a better business model for managing state parks and forests with a limited staff.

He said he was not worried that storm issues would wipe out his agenda. “I don’t think it needs to crowd out other commitments to cleaner and cheaper electricity,” he said of a post-storm focus. “I’m not worried.”