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Opinion: Unlike Predecessors, for Gov. Christie, It's Not Easy Being Green

New Jersey has a bipartisan tradition of governors who have tried to protect the environment -- and then there's the current chief executive

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

Every elected New Jersey governor since at least 1970 -- the year of the first Earth Day -- has achieved at least one environmental initiative of lasting importance to current and future generations. Except, that is, the current officeholder, Gov. Chris Christie.

While there may still be time for him to add his name to the roll of “green governors,” his record to date is not encouraging. A recent article by the director of the Sierra Club, Jeff Tittel, listed Christie’s attacks on environmental protections, and summed up his record to date: “This is the most anti-environmental administration in modern history, systematically rolling back 30 years of progress.”

So Christie will have to act fast if he’s to have any chance of following in the footsteps of his illustrious and bipartisan predecessors.

In 1970, Republican Gov. Bill Cahill established the Department of Environmental Protection, making New Jersey the second state with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- which another Republican, President Richard Nixon, initiated. Cahill also signed the Coastal Wetlands Act and the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) to protect the Jersey Shore against uncontrolled development.

Then came Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne. In his two terms (1973 - 1981) Byrne signed the Environmental Rights Act (ERA), ensuring a “citizen right to sue” to enforce environmental laws.

He also saved public transportation from the wrecking ball by creating NJ Transit to consolidate and run the state’s patchwork of bus and commuter rail lines. Most famously, Byrne -- through executive order -- preserved a vast swath of the Jersey Pinelands with its unique ecology and huge storehouse of ground water resources.

Next was another Republican governor, Tom Kean (1981-1989). When a reluctant Legislature refused to act on a bill to prevent the paving of freshwater wetlands, Kean took a leaf from Byrne’s playbook and -- by executive order -- stopped the filling of so-called swamp land until state lawmakers agreed to enact the Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act. And in his final year in office, Kean gave a prophetic speech warning of the dangers of global warming.

After Kean came Democratic former Congressman Jim Florio (1989-1993), “Mr. Superfund,” who as governor continued the assault on polluters by establishing an “environmental prosecutor” with the mission of strictly enforcing environmental laws.

Following Kean in the Statehouse was Christine Todd Whitman (1993-2001), a Republican, who later became President George W. Bush’s EPA administrator before resigning that post due to apparent disagreements over “cap and trade” policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While her term is more noted for its “Open for Business” motto, with its implicit antiregulatory message, she promoted the saving of a million acres of open space through an expanded “Green Acres” buy-up program.

Whitman’s short-term successors -- who temporarily held the office after her resignation -- were followed by Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, who before he, too, resigned signed the “Highlands Protection Act” and resurrected the Office of the Public Advocate (started by Byrne).

Next came Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who left few footprints during his single term, but did sign the “Global Warming Response Act” which committed the state to the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, albeit without any enforcement powers.

Now comes Christie (2009 - ). His record so far is summarized by Tittel in a recent issue of the “Jersey Sierran,” a newsletter to the Club’s 16,000 local members. Tittel writes that Christie has “reduced enforcement, denied climate change, and reversed protections for air and water.”

Specifically, Tittel says Christie and his administration have:

  • closed the DEP’s Office of Climate Change;

  • ignored sea-level rise in post-Sandy “Stronger than the Storm” rebuilding;

  • diverted $1 billion in clean energy trust funds, statutorily dedicated to financing solar power and energy efficiency, into the genera treasury;

  • turned away from his commitment to rapid offshore wind development;

  • pulled New Jersey out of RGGI, the 10-state compact to reduce carbon emissions;

  • failed to restore Green Acres funding which has now dried up;

  • slashed enforcement and penalty collection efforts, leaving polluters unchecked;

  • signed an executive order limiting state air quality standards to the federal minimum;

  • delayed adoption of new water quality management rules;

  • supported the waiver rule allowing DEP to relax environmental regulations;

  • weakened critical protections for the Highlands Region;

  • tried to abolish the Council on Affordable Housing.

The list is a long one and it could grow even longer if Gov. Christie continues to hew to the sharply antiregulatory rhetoric that seems intended to please the most right-wing elements in the Tea Party-dominated GOP, which has shed its bipartisan “green roots.”

Or Christie could decide it’s time for a midterm correction to secure a place for his name alongside those of his Republican – and Democratic – predecessors who did so much to restore and maintain the green in the Garden State.

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