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Gov. Christie Abandons Regional Clean Air Initiative

Despite his newfound belief in climate change, governor pulls New Jersey out of coalition to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Chris Christie, with Bob Martin, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday conceded global climate change is occurring, partially due to manmade activities. But even with the acknowledgement, he vowed to pull New Jersey out of a regional initiative aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

In a press conference in his outer office, Christie said he decided to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 10-state consortium that seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electric plants, saying that the program "is not effective… and is unlikely to be in the future."

His decision, coming after an extensive review by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of the program, drew quick condemnation from Democratic legislators, clean energy advocates and even a fellow Governor. It was praised, however, by business executives who believe the initiative is raising energy costs in a state that already has some of the highest electric rates in the nation.

The move is likely to have national implications. Conservatives have launched drives to get other states to pull out of the program, an effort that, until now, has been unsuccessful. New Jersey is the first to quit the effort, a move that could lead to uncertainty about its efforts to build a green economy, according to some.

"Gov. Christie’s announcement today undermines a decade’s worth of progress and leadership in New Jersey, and if he is successful, could set us behind our neighboring states working to end the dirty and destructive addiction to fossil fuels," said Matt Elliot, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey.

The regional initiative, begun in 2005, is a cap-and-trade program that established a regional cap on greenhouse emissions from power plants. Businesses that exceeded the cap paid into a fund that financed clean energy projects in the 10 states. The costs are ultimately passed on to ratepayers.

Since its launch, emissions contributing to global climate change have dropped anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent, but it is unclear how much of that was due to the regional program, the deep economic slump, and/or a big drop in natural gas prices. Still, the Governor was roundly criticized for pulling out of the program.

"Under this Governor, we are now a state that puts right-wing sound bites over innovation," said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. "Quite simply, this decision reeks of a Governor desperate to boost his radical conservative credentials to distract from his failing policies."

Others, however, viewed Christie’s move as an attempt to bolster his environmental record at home, the RGGI decision notwithstanding. In his remarks, the Governor vowed to block any new coal plants in New Jersey and to expand efforts to develop solar and wind power. He also said he had become a convert to global climate change and the impact from humans. Those positions stand close to policies supported by most New Jerseyans, but are hardly endorsed by the conservative side of the Republican party. His press office also put out a fact sheet touting Christie's environmental achievements.

"At the end of the day, his views are a little bit more conservative than most of the state, but not too far away to put him outside the mainstream," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

A Trial Run

While initially deemed a trial run for a nationwide program, opponents argued that RGGI never achieved its goals because the surcharges, ranging about $2 per ton, were not high enough to get companies to modify their plants or switch to cleaner fuels, a point made by Christie.

"RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernable or measurable impact upon our environment," said Christie who claimed the state already has achieved 2020 goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Business interests agreed. "At $2 to $4 a ton, it’s nothing but a tax," said Fred DeSanti, a lobbyist who represents energy interests.

Sarah Blum, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, called the decision good news for ratepayers. "Any chipping away at those high rates is helpful," she said.

But clean energy advocates argued there is no evidence that the program’s costs are hurting business. The average residential customer pays about $3.24 a year for the program, according to Luis Martinez, energy attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, conceded the program never forced power plants to modify their behavior, but criticized the Governor for pulling out of the program. Instead of killing it, the Governor should have worked to fix the program, he said.

Christie, who caused a stir when he said he was uncertain about the science of global climate change at a town hall meeting, is now a convert. "When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts," he said. Others questioned the Republican governor’s commitment to the issue. "The planet is not a political football -- we need serious, stable and long-term policy in place to reverse our climate impact,’’ said Vermont's Gov . Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. "That is why I think Gov. Christie’s decision to abandon RGGI, a cornerstone of that policy, is wrong."

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