Democrats Blame Christie's National Ambitions for Standstill in Offshore Wind
Lawmakers warn that if New Jersey doesn't move quickly, other states will seize the opportunity to lead the sector.
In 2010, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill to promote the development of offshore wind farms along the Jersey coast. Proponents claimed that the measure would propel the state to the forefront of manufacturing wind turbines and generating clean offshore power.
So far, it has proven not to be, and Democratic lawmakers yesterday pinned the blame on Christie and his national political ambitions.
The state Board of Public Utilities was supposed to adopt regulations permitting offshore wind developers to earn credits for the electricity their systems produce, a step that would facilitate banks financing the projects, most of which are expected to cost more than $1 billion.
Despite a deadline of March 2011, the state agency has yet to propose regulations, saying it is still working on ways to assure offshore wind developers that ratepayer funds designed to bankroll the projects will not be diverted to help balance future state budgets.
Top Democratic lawmakers disputed that contention.
"I honestly believe that it's being held up by national politics," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), standing outside the fence of the Paulsboro Marine Terminal, a site offshore wind proponents hope will become a hub for green manufacturing jobs associated with the sector.
The offshore wind law won approval with bipartisan support in 2010, including a provision that would offer up to $100 million in tax credits to a wind manufacturer that located to a New Jersey port. The Paulsboro facility, once the site of an oil tank storage farm, is an ideal location, with more than 190 acres and a deepwater port, according to Sweeney.
"It's there. We've got interest," said Sweeney, who declined to identify any companies that have approached the state. "We've spoken to several and, some are interested."
If an offshore wind manufacturer located to New Jersey, it probably would create up to 2,000 jobs at the Paulsboro facility, and thousands of others around the region, Sweeney said.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) agreed. If the port attracted an offshore wind manufacturer, it would create thousands of other jobs associated with the sector, he said.
"The state is poised to move," he said, "If we can get the governor to move."
Both lawmakers stressed the need to move quickly, before other states along the eastern seaboard take steps to lure the offshore wind industry to their locales. Burzichelli said investors that are interested in promoting the sector will move their money elsewhere unless New Jersey acts rapidly.
Despite the optimism of lawmakers, the offshore wind industry still faces big hurdles before it becomes a reality for New Jersey.
Under the legislation signed by the governor, each project must demonstrate a "net economic benefit" for customers, who ultimately will bear the cost of financing the projects. The first proposal to come before the BPU, an offshore wind facility three miles from Atlantic City, is opposed by the state Division of Rate Counsel, which argues the project fails to meet that standard.
In addition, although the federal permitting process has been streamlined, offshore wind developers argue that the procedure still needs to be expedited.
But both Sweeney and Burzichelli blamed the Christie administration.
"This has been sitting here for two years now,'' said Sweeney. "The governor's administration and especially the BPU is clearly at fault."
The BPU did not respond to a call for comment, but Bob Hanna, the president of the agency, previously said it recognizes the potential problem that funds for offshore wind developers may be diverted and hopes to come up with a solution this fall.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was skeptical.
"The governor may talk a lot about wind, but that's mostly what it is: just wind," he said.