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Christie and Buono on the Environment: The Sounds of Silence

christie and buono
Credit: Joe Sinnott

This is the second in a series of articles laying out the critical policy challenges that the next governor and Legislature will face, as well as their positions on these issues.

The state’s open-space preservation program is broke. Electric and gas transmission projects may soon traverse the New Jersey Highlands and the Pine Barrens, forested land previously set aside for protection. Questions abound on where and whether to pull back from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy along the Jersey Shore.

Not that many years ago, those issues and others likely would have emerged as top concerns and would have been hotly debated in a gubernatorial contest. Not this year: The economy apparently trumps the environment.

In the race between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic challenger state Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex County, the environment rarely has been raised as a topic. Silence prevails, though some say the differences between the two candidates on this issue are as stark as they have ever been in a gubernatorial election.

Besides some discussion about the impact of climate change on New Jersey, environmental issues have failed to engage either candidate or the public to a large degree. So much for the green economy, an issue that some parties hoped would spur economic growth in the state by creating jobs developing offshore wind farms and new employment in the once flourishing solar sector..

The apathy even extends to a few environmental organizations that typically weigh in with endorsements -- but not this year. Both the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and Environment New Jersey are sitting out this fall’s election, waiting to see who will be the next governor.

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the NJLCV, said the organization is focusing on legislative elections this fall, where its limited financial resources can have more of an impact. This despite the fact that the group's primary goal this session was to enact a stable source of funding for open space, a failure that can be blamed on the Legislature. Environment New Jersey declined to say why it was not making an endorsement.

To be sure, Buono won the backing of two of the most prominent environmental organizations in the state: the New Jersey Sierra Club, perhaps the harshest critic of the governor, and the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed Christie just four years ago but is no longer on speaking terms with the administration.

Both groups’ criticisms of Christie’s environmental record are extensive.

For starters, there’s been no move to create a program to fund open-space preservation despite a pledge to do so four years ago during the governor's initial run for office. They also rail at the administration’s diversion of more than $800 million in clean energy funds (with the approval of the Democratic-controlled Legislature) to balance state budgets. They challenged the adoption of a controversial rule allowing state environmental officials to waive certain regulations if the agency deems them unduly burdensome, a case they lost.

“This race is unique,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the federation. “People don’t like the governor’s positions, but they like his style.’’

Even beyond the environment, however, Pringle argued the gubernatorial campaign has been largely devoid of substantive talk about any issue.

“What’s even more remarkable is there’s a lot to talk about and we’re not doing it,’’ Pringle said, referring to the environment. “He’s done a lot and it’s really bad.’’

For instance, the federation noted Christie criticized former Gov. Jon Corzine during the Republican’s initial campaign run for delaying the review of the state’s water supply master plan and vowed a quick assessment of the state’s drinking water supplies, a promised that has yet to be fulfilled. A blue-ribbon panel of former state officials called on the administration to complete the plan earlier this year, but there has been no response.

In Christie’s first term, major gas and electric transmission projects have been approved in the Highlands, the source of drinking water for millions of New Jerseyans. In the Pinelands, the agency regulating development in the largest preserved woodland tract between Boston and Washington, D.C., is considering approving a gas pipeline through the Pinelands Forest Area to allow a utility to link to a power plant on the banks of Great Egg Harbor.

Clean energy advocates and environmentalists also are unhappy with the administration’s efforts to promote offshore wind farms, a goal endorsed by the administration’s Energy Master Plan. No offshore wind projects are even relatively close to being approved -- even though the plan recommends the development of 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the Christie for Governor campaign, disputed the environmentalists’ assessments. “We’re extraordinarily proud of our environmental record,’’ Roberts said, citing the administration’s push to close down Oyster Creek; its efforts to preserve Barnegat Bay; and its move to close down polluting coal plants that are affecting the state’s air quality.

As for the failure to propose a stable source of funding for open-space preservation, Roberts said the governor laid out a broad vision in his initial campaign about a wide range of issues. “He never said it would be all accomplished in four years,’’ he said, noting the issue is still being looked at by the administration.

And when it comes to the waiver rule, Roberts noted that despite dire predictions from environmentalists, not a single waiver has yet be granted by the Department of Environmental Protection.

David Turner, a spokesman for Buono’s campaign, argued that the candidate is talking about environmental issues, including the impacts of climate change and extreme storms such as Hurricane Sandy, along with the governor's decision to pull out of a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

On Buono’s website, however, there are only three paragraphs devoted to the environment, primarily dealing with the regional greenhouse gas initiative and the waiver rule, which she opposed. “Barbara will restore New Jersey’s leadership in clean energy and attracting solar and wind projects and spurring new hiring,’’ according to website.

Turner argued that part of the lack of focus on environmental issues is driven by the fact that New Jersey’s economy is lagging behind that of other states in the region. “Voters number one concern is getting the economy back on track,’’ he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club disagreed, arguing that the environment should be a decisive issue. “You have a governor that has rolled back environmental protections and weakened ones that were relatively popular,’’ he said, referring to the raiding of clean energy funds.

But Michael Egenton, a senior vice president at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, argued the Christie administration has adopted a balanced approach between protecting the environment and economic development.

“We’ve done a lot to improve the environment,’’ Egenton said, citing the gains in air quality in New Jersey over the past two decades. “The governor’s record has been protective of the environment but also recognizing we need to have job growth and strengthen the economy.’’

Tittle discounts that argument, saying the state has failed to move aggressively on developing offshore wind farms and has allowed its solar sector to stagnate, causing the loss of thousands of jobs.

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