Early in his second week on the job, Robert Klee, Connecticut’s new interim commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, admitted that during his first week on the job he had called his predecessor, Dan Esty – once.
“We joked about – you have my number, but you don’t need to use it,” Klee recalled of the conversation.
He probably won’t have to call a lot.
Klee, who goes by Rob, moved to the top spot at DEEP earlier this month after three years as chief of staff to Esty, the activist and seasoned energy and environment expert who created the department.
Schooled by Esty, literally at Yale as well as on the job, Klee is largely unknown to outside observers including the large environmental advocacy corps that operates in the state and region and often has a seat at the table as state policies are hammered out. But the chatter is positive – from insiders that he’s smart, nice and easy to work with; from outsiders that they hear he’s smart, nice and easy to work with.
“He knows every nook and cranny of the agency,” said one environmental advocate, who, like most, would speak only privately about the new commissioner. “That’s a huge advantage for him.”
But Klee comes to office in a gubernatorial election year – a time to display accomplishments and not rock the boat. While no one uses the word caretaker, Klee himself describes his role as an implementer of the vast and complex policies added to the books in the last few years.
Election years, however, can be daunting for even veterans of public service and the political caldron. Klee is a first-timer.
It may be noteworthy that in a 50-minute interview, Klee only once uttered what has come to be the department mantra about energy: “cheaper, cleaner, more reliable.” That slogan and the policy that goes with it – lower energy costs and greater access to less expensive natural gas — are likely be key themes for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy assuming, as most do, that he runs for re-election.
“How is he going to operate in the political arena?” the advocate asked rhetorically about Klee. “It’s THE question.”
Klee, who just turned 40, points out that while not political, he’s not a public sector novice. His first job out of undergraduate school at Princeton, where he majored in geology and specialized in igneous and metamorphic rocks, was with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. That was followed by several months on the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii working for the U.S. Geological Survey.
“My main job was actually to sample sulfur emissions from the volcano, which was me in the caldera taking little samples of sulfur gases,” he said in the earnest and open demeanor that is already apparent in his style. “Which mostly by the end of the summer had eaten away my pants.”
He also clerked for two high-profile federal judges after finishing law school and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in, essentially, trash. Then it was back to the private sector as an attorney.
“I like that going back and forth between the two. I think you get great perspectives in both arenas,” he said. “I think part of the reason the governor chose me is that my main focus is on the work of the agency; continuing the good policies we’ve been given by the legislature in cooperation with the executive branch and really just focus on getting the job done.”
But whose version of the job?
Something of a parlor game within the environmental community has been who calls the shots on DEEP’s highest profile policies. Some say unconditionally that it has been the governor.
“I think he made Esty promise him that the number one deliverable was going to be cheaper energy prices,” said another environmental advocate, one of several who called Klee’s regular-guy background a welcome break from the Esty superstar era. “The focus in the state became cheap energy by any means necessary even if it’s the newest fossil fuel.”
In the last three years, most major energy and environmental actions and policy announcements were made by the governor’s office, not DEEP. And often noted was last year’s end-of-session news conference that was largely co-opted by Malloy.
“I don’t think anybody would dispute that the governor is running the show,” said Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Ultimately he’s the guy who was elected, and he’s responsible.”
“People should give him a chance,” Kaplan said of Klee. “There’s a very steep learning curve.”
But several worry that the focus on energy prices as an accomplishment that will play well in a re-election campaign would make 2014 more of a planning year and stall new initiatives this legislative session and slow existing efforts.
Klee is not among them.
While he admits the governor’s direction to him and the deputy commissioners was “head down, keep all the things moving in the direction that the governor has said,” he also has a short, but ambitious list of new initiatives.
One is the surprisingly radical legislation submitted by the governor to remake the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority into a 21st century waste system to be known as the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority.
“I was impressed,” said Tom Swan, executive director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group, “They are rocking the boat in a pretty big way and doing it for sound policy reasons and not letting politics get in the way.”
And it’s something Prof. Trash – as even Klee called himself – knows about. Overcoming the state’s dismal efforts at increasing recycling and other non-dumping forms of disposal he said will take education and outreach to essentially reprogram community and individual trash habits.
“I think … to really push the needle and move our recycling rates up to 60 percent and beyond would really be an amazing and transformative achievement,” Klee said. “And is possible.”
Also on the list is to get more brownfields cleaned and developed – something Klee said he feels suited to. “It sort of takes every bit of my legal brain and my scientific brain,” he said.
Open space acquisition would continue, and he disputed criticism that attention to the state’s forests and parks had lagged under Malloy. Klee said there had been an unprecedented investment on the capital side.
“[A]s a father with two young kids I like having a bathroom that is up to date and working,” he said. And that means bathrooms will be an infrastructure priority along with things like boat launches and basic paving projects.
Wearing a suit, tie and a pair of light hiking shoes, Klee seems prepared to head to any of the state’s parks at a moment’s notice. He attributed the boots, however, to less-than-perfectly-plowed streets in New Haven, where he has lived for 15 years, and his daily task – which he says will continue – of taking his sons Alex, 6, and Jacob, 4, to school.
“But that’s also part of our agency,” he said of the shoes, though he professed not to miss being a field scientist. “I early on sort of realized the combination of science and law and policy was most exciting to me, and finding the right scientific and policy tools to help protect our great natural spaces was the most interesting thing for me, and that’s how I sort of combined a bit of science, a bit of law and ended up where I am now.”
“I’m actually thrilled … I love coming to work,” he said. ”Every day I come in, and I’m excited by what may be crossing my desk. Anything from a moose or a bear to energy infrastructure to electric vehicles.”
“I’m a Connecticut native,” said Klee, who grew up in Fairfield. “I grew up on its beaches and in its parks and forests, and to get to lead the agency that’s responsible for ensuring those are wonderful places for our families to come visit is a thrill to me.”