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Democrats Close Ranks to Review Administration's Proposed Energy Policy

Lawmakers and administration likely to clash over New Jersey's aggressive goals for solar power.

Fresh from opposing the Governor's decision to pull out of a regional initiative to combat global warming, Democratic lawmakers plan to hold their own hearing on the Christie administration’s draft Energy Master Plan (EMP).

The hearing, to be held in August in the middle of the legislature's summer recess, will likely increase tension between the administration and lawmakers over New Jersey’s aggressive goals to reduce energy consumption and promote cleaner, but more expensive, ways of producing electricity from solar and wind energy.

The administration last month released a revised EMP. The document suggests scaling back New Jersey's ambitious goals for increasing its reliance on solar energy while promoting a greater dependence on natural gas.

Those recommendations did not go over very well with clean energy advocates, particularly a decision to abandon a goal of the previous Energy Master Plan to have 30 percent of the state's electricity produced by renewable energy by 2020. Gov. Chris Christie derided this target as "pie in the sky" and pandering to special interests.

Lame-Duck Legislation

The plan also suggested taking another look at a bill passed in the lame-duck legislature before Christie took office that greatly accelerated how much of the state’s electricity should come from solar. The administration is concerned about the cost of solar, which the master plan projected would cost ratepayers more than a half billion dollars annually by 2015.

Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset), the influential chairman of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, does not see lawmakers backing away from that target.

"On the contrary, everyone is talking about the need for job creation, but the solar industry is the only one creating jobs," Chivukla said. New Jersey is second behind only California in the number of solar installations, with more than 8,000. Its rapid growth has led to the establishment of a few hundred solar businesses employing about 2,000 people.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he will hold hearings on the EMP, which he described as "Corzine-Lite," in mid-August in the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee,

"It sent all the wrong signals," Smith said, referring to efforts to scale back New Jersey's renewable energy goals. "We are trying to focus attention that New Jersey stands to lose its way as a leader in renewable energy."

Smith also faulted the administration for taking 14 months to overhaul the plan, a delay that he says created chaos in the industry due to the uncertainty whether the state would scale back its renewable energy goals.

Equally Critical

Other lawmakers were equally critical. Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment panel, said the draft Energy Master Plan is "consistent with a very environmentally unfriendly position" taken by the administration.

"Unquestionably [the goal is] to lower the bar on renewable energy and lower expectations, undermining the policies to get us there," said McKeon, who sounded a combative note. He argued that the "war" over the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the coalition that Christie pulled out of earlier this year, is not over. He said lawmakers are likely to pass resolutions insisting it is inconsistent with legislative intent -- even if the governor vetoes a bill passed before the summer break that would require New Jersey to rejoin the 10-state coalition.

Chivukula also criticized the plan's push to develop more natural gas-powered generating stations. "There's too much of a gamble on natural gas," he said. "Right now, natural gas prices are low, but if they start climbing up, then we will be in deep water."

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the legislative hearing should focus on ways to fix problems with the revised master plan. He noted there already is a bill moving in the legislation to constitutionally dedicate all clean energy funds, which have been diverted by the administration to balance the budget in the past two years.

"We need to come up with a proactive plan to keep the administration from rolling back these goals," he said.

The hearing will likely occur after the administration holds its own hearings on the plan, the first of which is scheduled for July 26 in Newark, followed by a hearing in Trenton on August 3 and a third at Stockton College in Galloway on August 11.

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