On their honeymoon a decade ago, Robert Klee took his wife to Antarctica aboard a Russian icebreaker. Other tourists venture to the coldest spot on the planet to see penguins, but Klee was interested in how the international science community there managed its trash.
“My wife is a very good sport,” Klee said.
Klee, 39, who was named Thursday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as Connecticut’s next commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection, is the mild-mannered protégé of the hard-charging mentor he will succeed, Daniel C. Esty.
He is set to take over one of state government’s highest-profile agencies after three years of constant change, bringing to the commissioner’s office a varied background in environment law, science and public policy.
Klee is a man who can wax rhapsodic about “transformative efforts on waste,” what he says is Malloy’s willingness to consider “cutting edge” policies on how Connecticut uses recycling to squeeze whatever is useful from the waste stream.
“Part of my background is industrial ecology, the materials flow analysis, thinking about waste in interesting, creative ways,” Klee said.
Antarctica was his virtual laboratory as a Yale graduate student, a closed system where scientists kept careful records about what supplies they brought there and what refuse they brought back. Klee’s dissertation was a “materials flow analysis.”
” ‘Materials flow analysis of the industrial systems in Antarctica’ was a study of the scientific research station as a miniature city,” Klee said. “You can actually model to see how Italians do it versus the French and the Australians and the Americans.”
In other words, Klee has a Ph.D. in trash.
Malloy, who introduced Klee as his commissioner-designate in an auditorium packed with DEEP employees, said he picked Klee to oversee a senior team assembled by Esty, some of whom also were considered for the post.
“I thought Rob was the right fit for this time. He’s done some amazing work,” Malloy said. “This is a team. I’m anxious that it stays intact.”
Klee, who turns 40 next week, will be paid $135,000. He gave up a position as a litigator and appellate lawyer with the New Haven firm of Wiggin & Dana nearly three years ago to join his former Yale professor in state government.
Klee said he emailed Esty the day he was named by Malloy in March 2011 as commissioner of what was then known as the Department of Environmental Protection. He said Esty got back to him in about 20 minutes, suggesting they talk about a job. He began in April as Esty’s chief of staff.
Now, Esty is returning to academia after a three-year leave from Yale, leaving his former graduate student to oversee a dramatically changed agency.
“The word for this is continuity,” Esty said.
“We are going to build on the momentum we gained in the past three years, but our primary focus now is on execution, implementation and delivery,” Klee said. Quoting a former colleague, he told assembled DEEP employees, “Our job now is to get stuff done.”
But Esty, Klee and Malloy all acknowledged differences in personality and personal style. Klee is understated, where Esty is emphatic; reserved, where Esty is brash. Esty was hired as a change agent.
“Oh, he did that,” Malloy said drily in front of DEEP employees. “Sometimes, too successfully.”
“I’m a fairly even-keeled sort of person. I do focus on getting the job done. I love working hard. I love working for this agency,” Klee said. “This is new to me, this part of the job. But I was also a litigator once.”
Klee has an undergraduate degree in geology and earth science from Princeton and three degrees from Yale: a master’s in environmental management, a doctorate in environmental studies and a law degree. Before joining Wiggin & Dana, he was clerk for judges in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
Malloy, who is seeking re-election this fall, said he considered no candidates outside of DEEP, where Esty relied on Klee and three deputy commissioners: Katie Dykes, energy and technology; Macky McCleary, air, waste and water; and Susan Whalen, natural resources and outdoor recreation.
The governor is aware of complaints that environmental protection took a back seat to energy policy under Esty, but he found them unpersuasive.
“I think everybody thinks their number one interest is the most important interest in the world,” Malloy said. “And I think when it comes to this department, we have it just about right, the balance.”
Energy experts seemed to favor Dykes, while traditional environmentalists rooted for McCleary, but most praised Klee as a choice that spans both camps in DEEP and within the broader environmental community.
“It was very smart of them not to have brought anybody in from the cold, so to speak, in this kind of situation. The learning curve would have been so steep,” said Stewart Hudson, the executive director of Audubon Connecticut. Hudson, who is acquainted with Klee, said, “I think he’s the kind of guy that listens.”
Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, a co-chairman of the Environment Committee, said he wanted to see DEEP move beyond its focus on energy policy to broader environmental concerns. He had been seen as rooting for McCleary, but he praised Klee.
“Rob represents a significant continuation of the goals and achievements of Dan Esty. This is continuity the governor has chosen,” Meyer said, adding, “He’s a good one.”
Meyer said he believes that Klee, who spoke Thursday about camping and hiking in state forests and parks, is committed to open-space preservation and maintaining the quality of the state park system, which marks its centennial this year.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said he was pleased to see an Esty protégé running DEEP.
“Bob will follow in the path that’s already been cleared by Dan Esty and will work to further enhance goals that Gov. Malloy and the legislature have with cleaner energy, cheaper energy and a stronger environment,” Duff said. “He also understands how good policy translates into a stronger economy.”
Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, the other co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, had worked closely with Dykes, but she, too, called Klee a good choice.
“The staff loves him. He really knows all the components of DEEP,” she said.
Reed said his appointment could allow the three deputies to take higher profile roles with the departure of Esty, a nationally prominent author and lecturer.
“When you have a superstar, he absorbs all the light,” Reed said. “This allows other people’s talents to percolate up. It allows DEEP to transition into a more mature agency that it needs to be.”
That may also extend to Klee’s household. In his remarks to employees, Klee said his new job didn’t even get top billing at the home he shares in New Haven with his wife, Anne, and two sons, Alex and Jacob.
“For your information,” he said, “the big news in our house last night was that my older son lost his first tooth.”