A portrait photo of the Connecticut State Supreme Court building, which is seen on a sunny day from a walkway flanked by trees with purple leaves.
Connecticut Supreme Court. CT Mirror File Photo
Connecticut Supreme Court.
Connecticut Supreme Court. CT Mirror File Photo

The state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a legal challenge by oil dealers to a comprehensive energy strategy Connecticut adopted in 2013 to encourage a greater reliance on natural gas by residential and commercial customers.

In a 4-1 decision, the court upheld a trial court’s dismissal of a claim by the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, which represents nearly 600 sellers of heating oil and gasoline, that the strategy should have been subjected to an environmental  review

“We’re pleased with the court decision and that our approach to energy strategy was upheld,” said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Chris Herb, the executive director of the marketing association, said he viewed the decision as narrowly drawn: Since the department was establishing a strategy, not doing actual construction, there is no need for an environmental review.

“In my mind, they won on a technicality,” Herb said.

Herb said one result of the strategy was the conversions of 40,000 homes and businesses from oil heat to natural gas, requiring the installation of gas lines into new service areas. The potential environmental impact of that work should have been studied, he said.

“The good news is that all the circumstances under which the plan was developed have changed,” he said.

The original strategy adopted three years ago put considerable focus on natural gas, then far cheaper than oil, as a cleaner bridge fuel to renewable energy options down the road. It called for conversions from oil to gas for heating, and it stressed the need to expand natural gas pipeline capacities to carry the large amount of fracked gas that was available so that power plants could switch from oil or coal to natural gas and new natural gas plants could be built.

Three years later, as state officials update the CES as required by law, they face question about how to regroup in light of dramatically changed energy, environmental and political landscapes.

[See: CT works on new energy strategy as old one misses the mark]

The price of oil has dropped, making it more competitive with natural gas and slowing the demand for conversions. And two of five natural gas pipeline projects and competitive bidding for more were scuttled, leaving gas supplies in New England as constrained as ever.

Herb said his members will ask legislators, who return to Hartford for the opening of the 2017 session on Wednesday, for legislative changes that reflect those realities.

The court decision released Thursday was written by Justice Richard A. Robinson and joined by Justices Richard N. Palmer, Peter T. Zarella and Andrew J. McDonald. They concluded the plaintiffs, the oil dealers, had misread the law in their lawsuit against DEEP and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

“The plaintiff contends that the trial court incorrectly concluded that the department’s preparation of the comprehensive energy strategy and the approval of the expansion plan by both the department and the authority were not  ‘actions which may significantly affect the environment’ … requiring an environmental impact evaluation,” Robinson wrote. “We disagree.”

The sole dissenter was Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh, who thought his colleagues took too narrow a view of the definition of “activity” under state environmental law. His dissent concluded that the matter should have been returned to the trial court “for a determination of whether the activity may significantly affect the environment.”

Correction: As originally posted, this story did not report Eveleigh’s dissent.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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