The future of the state Office of Climate Change and Energy is uncertain, apparently even among members of the Christie administration.
Despite language in Gov. Chris Christie’s initial budget-in-brief document, the office will not be abolished, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin told the Assembly budget committee today.
"First off, we’re not eliminating the office," Martin replied when asked about the administration's plans to divert $65 million out of a special fund designed to help New Jersey combat global climate change. Martin said the office will stay intact, although its staffing may be cut.
The news surprised clean energy advocates who have loudly protested the diversion of the money away from efforts to promote cleaner sources of energy, such as solar and wind power, and energy conservation projects.
"I don’t know how you have an office of climate change without any funding," said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, which has been lobbying lawmakers to restore funds shifted away from clean energy programs to help plug projected deficits in this and next year's current budgets.
Asked about the apparent contradiction after a two-and-a-half hour hearing before the committee, Martin said he was unaware of any cuts to the office’s budget. The administration’sgiven to reporters on March 17 includes language that reads, "The general fund appropriation to the office will be eliminated for fiscal year 2011."
Anprepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services handed out today agreed that line item funding for the office had been eliminated.
During the hearing, Martin also said he expects the state not to divert money from the global warming fund next year. The fund is financed by credits paid by polluters who generate greenhouse gas emissions.
"I anticipate it to be a one-shot deal," Martin said, adding the fund could bring in $40 million to $50 million next year. “That's my plan, but the Governor is still the boss," he added.
Unlike in years past, the hearing devoted sparse attention to environmental issues that have marked past budget sessions. Instead, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle repeatedly praised Martin for bringing a different approach to his job, which he described as having to be more customer-friendly to the businesses it deals with.
"The DEP is broken and needs to be fixed," he said. "We must and will make dramatic changes to how we fundamentally do business at DEP. We need to make permitting and inspections timely and predictable. We need to play a key role in the economic growth of the state."
He said he planned to hire an economist to help the agency balance the cost benefit of various environmental regulations.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the chairman of the committee, welcomed Martin’s agenda. "The perception is the permitting process is so arduous that people choose to build somewhere else [outside of New Jersey]," Greenwald said.
Some environmentalists were unhappy at the tone of the hearing. "I thought it was a polluter’s love-fest," said Jeff Tittel, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club of New Jersey.