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Lawmakers, Environmentalists Want NJ Back in Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Senate committee votes out bill to force state to participate in RGGI.

Nine months after Gov. Chris Christie vowed to pull New Jersey out of a regional effort to curb pollution that contributes to global climate change, clean energy advocates and lawmakers renewed efforts to require the state to rejoin the initiative.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee yesterday voted unanimously, joined by a Republican legislator, to vote out a bill (S-1322) that would force the state to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 10-state cooperative effort that established a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Whether the push, endorsed by a wide range of environmental groups, will be successful remains to be seen. The Democratic-controlled legislature approved a similar bill earlier this year in the previous session, but the measure was vetoed by the governor and it never came up for an override.

"The majority of the legislature continues to believe we are making a mistake in policy," said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee. This session the bill is sponsored by Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester), an indication that the measure could be even more of a political football in the current legislative session.

The issue pits environmentalists against business lobbyists, who call the initiative another factor in rising energy bills in New Jersey, a factor that has put the state at a competitive disadvantage with other states in the region.

"What you end up doing is artificially increasing the cost of electricity without any environmental benefit," said Sarah Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

She argued that because power plants are dispatched based on lower costs of producing energy, the program results in dirtier, but cheaper, coal-fired power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, (which are not in the 10-state initiative) being dispatched instead of cleaner, but more expensive, plants in New Jersey, which have adopted more sophisticated pollution controls.

The regional initiative, begun in 2005, requires power plants to pay a surcharge on greenhouse gas emissions. Those assets, ultimately passed on to ratepayers, are used to fund various efforts to promote alternative energy, as well as energy efficiency projects that save customers money by reducing consumption of gas or electricity.

Clean energy advocates argued those costs are minimal compared to the benefits of participating in the program.

"RGGI creates jobs, saves money and creates economic benefit for the state," said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, of Greenfaith, an interfaith environmental organization. "The long-term benefits create a model for fighting climate change, not only for New Jersey, but for the rest of the country."

Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, agreed, saying the state would lose tens of millions of dollars, which could be spent reducing energy bills, over the next 10 months if it does not rejoin the regional initiative.

"Without this bill, by end of the year, we will miss out on more than $40 million that could help grow the economy, clean the air, and fight global warming," he said.

In announcing the state was pulling out of the initiative last May, Christie said the program is not effective, and unlikely to be so in the future.

That view was disputed by proponents, who insisted that instead of pulling out of the program, New Jersey should rejoin the effort and work to fix whatever flaws now exist in the initiative.

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