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Senate Panel Wants to Steer Alternative Vehicles Into Fast Lane

Tom Johnson | November 20, 2012

One proposal adopted by committee would deploy refueling stations for alternative vehicles along NJ Turnpike.

The state is moving to accelerate the deployment of refueling stations to promote the use of greener vehicles, including those propelled by natural gas, propane, and electricity.

To help make that happen, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee adopted a trio of proposals yesterday.

One (S-2194) would spur the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to install refueling stations for vehicles run by natural gas or electricity on toll roads operated by the agency;. Another (S-2250), would dedicate a portion of corporate business taxes to retrofit diesel vehicles. A third (SR-81) would urge car manufacturers to develop and sell natural gas vehicles in the state.

The measures are aligned with the goals of the chairman of the committee, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who wants the panel to begin developing a framework for an infrastructure to replace vehicles that rely on gasoline. That step would further New Jersey’s aggressive goals to deal with climate change and increase its energy independence.

By and large, the package won approval from a wide array of interests: utilities, some environmentalists, and the Department of Environmental Protection.

But Jim Walsh, director of New Jersey Food & Water Watch, said he was “dumbfounded’’ by the committee’s action.

Walsh said the committee’s approval of the bills is taking “us down a road to dependence on natural gas.’’ And that, Walsh argued, will only increase the state’s reliance on fossil fuels contributing to global climate change, pose potential problems to the drinking water supplies of millions, and possibly expose the public to radon gas, a pollutant that can cause increased risk of cancer.

Smith disputed those arguments, saying natural gas, when used to fuel vehicles, is much cleaner than gasoline. “No one wants to increase global warming,’’ added Smith, who argued that when all the advantages of moving to natural gas vehicles are weighed, there would be a net benefit for the environment.

In addition, the committee approved another bill sponsored by Smith, which would authorize use of constitutionally dedicated moneys to fund the conversion of certain diesel vehicles to those fueled by compressed natural gas, electricity, or propane.

The bill aims to build on a successful program adopted by the Legislature several years ago to siphon off money from the Corporate Business Tax to retrofit diesel vehicles to reduce harmful particulate pollution from buses, garbage trucks and other sources.

Since the program was initiated about four years ago, more than 10,000 vehicles have been retrofitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to Peg Hanna, the agency’s diesel air-quality manager. Another 6,000 are targeted for retrofitting, Hanna said.

Since the program started, it has reduced particulate emissions, a pollutant considered to cause thousands of premature deaths nationwide each year, by about 100 tons per year, she said.

The DEP supported the bill but asked the committee for amendments that would target most of the new conversions to off-road vehicles owned by the public sector, a change Smith said would probably be incorporated into the bill when it is taken up by the Senate appropriations committee.

“We want to focus on additional vehicles moving forward,’’ said John Hazen, legislative liaison for the DEP.

The move was endorsed by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Natural gas is a lot cleaner than diesel,’’ Tittel said, adding that natural gas conversions make the most sense for fleets of vehicles, such as delivery and garbage trucks.

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