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Assembly Panel to Take Closer Look at Greenhouse Gas Emissions

New Jersey has aggressive targets in place to reduce climate-changing pollution, but is it doing enough to meet them?

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With the federal government moving to sharply curb greenhouse gas emissions, legislators are looking at what New Jersey needs to do to comply with the tougher pollution control measures.

What impact, if any, will the new standards have on traditional power plants supplying electricity to the state? How can New Jersey reduce climate-changing pollution from power units and other sources? Should the state rejoin a regional initiative aimed at curbing greenhouse gases?

Those are among the questions that will be explored on Thursday when the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee convenes in the Statehouse Annex. The topic is generally given less scrutiny than the state’s efforts to promote new, cleaner ways of producing electricity by encouraging the development of solar energy and offshore wind farms.

Ever since Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of New Jersey, however, the issue has emerged as more of a priority among state officials, policymakers, environmentalists, and academics. Indeed, a week from today at Rutgers University’s Cook Campus, there will be an all-day conference “Bridging the Climate Divide: Informing the Response to Hurricane Sandy.’’

Last month, the Obama administration proposed tougher controls on new power plants, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. In New Jersey, state Department of Environmental Protection officials say the new standards will have little or no impact on power plants because they already are subject to stiffer controls than the draft rules outlined by federal officials.

New Jersey already has established aggressive targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cutting down on how much energy businesses and residents state consume each year. By 2020, New Jersey needs to cut global climate pollution by 20 percent from 1990 levels, and then an additional 80 percent from 2006 levels, according to a bill signed into law by former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Whether the state can achieve those aggressive targets is up in the air. A DEP plan to curtail pollution that contributes to global climate change in December 2009 suggested three main routes to accomplish them: participating in a 10-state consortium to reduce emissions from power plants; push to encourage very low-emission vehicles; and revamp the state's Energy Master Plan.

But Gov. Chris Christie pulled out of the regional consortium, calling it ineffective and saying it was just a tax on businesses and residents. Democrat lawmakers have objected, but have never been able to override the governor’s decision, although the issue is expected to be discussed this week by the Assembly committee.

In addition, the state’s efforts to promote vehicles that produce less greenhouse gases has been mixed at best. New Jersey is lagging behind Texas, California, and other states in promoting electric plug-in vehicles, with many bills designed to give incentives to promote their use stalled in the state Legislature.

That is problematic: While the power sector produces about 24 percent of greenhouse gases, the transportation sector is a far bigger contributor to global climate change, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the pollution.

As for the state’s Energy Master Plan, New Jersey continues to be among the leaders in promoting solar energy, but its goal of building 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 is looking increasingly unlikely because of obstacles at both the state and the federal permitting levels.

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