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Proposed Federal Pollution Controls Resonate With NJ's Key Democratic Lawmakers

Republicans sit out press conference, reminder that global climate change remains contentious issue in Trenton and across state

Senator Bob Smith
State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)

The Obama administration’s proposed tough new regulations on power plants to curb pollution contributing to climate change won backing from some key Democratic state legislators and others yesterday at a press conference in the Statehouse.

But they also argued the state needs to step up its own efforts to achieve the goal of reducing carbon pollution by 30 percent in New Jersey by 2030, as proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And there's an even more aggressive target looming, a state law that mandates an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050.

The press conference -- absent any state Republican lawmakers -- came a day after four erstwhile Republican EPA administrators, including former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, urged prompt action on climate change, a stance that is not likely to be embraced by Congress..

In New Jersey, the question of how to deal with global climate change also has emerged as a contentious issue between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the Christie administration.

“This mess is only going to get really messy,’’ predicted Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who has been in the forefront of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Smith cited Gov. Chris Christie’s decision early in his first term to pull New Jersey out of a regional initiative aimed at reducing carbon pollution by imposing a tax on emissions from power plants.

“When the governor pulled the state out of the agreement, he took away our first serious attempt to soften the impact of climate change, and then Hurricane Sandy hit just to remind us of how vulnerable we are as a coastal state," he said.

Smith urged the governor to rejoin the effort, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Christie has vetoed legislation to do so, repeating his criticism that the program is ineffective and merely amounts to a tax on utility customers.

But even as they called for more aggressive steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the state, advocates conceded that New Jersey is in much better shape than other states, which face even more stringent reductions in carbon pollution under the EPA proposal.

For instance, New Jersey needs to cut its emissions by 4 million tons a year, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. That is far less than what Pennsylvania, which heavily relies on coal-powered plants to provide electricity, must reduce greenhouse emissions under the EPA proposal, he said.

Since 2005, New Jersey has cut emissions from power plants that contribute to climate change by 40 percent, according to a recent study by the Georgetown Climate Center. Part of that is because nuclear power plants, which have no carbon pollution, supply much of the electricity in New Jersey, and the few coal plants in state run much less often than in the past because of low natural gas prices.

The EPA suggested one way to achieve the required emission reductions is to join regional compacts such as the regional initiative put together by 10 states in the Northeast, until New Jersey pulled out of the program.

Other proposed strategies for states included more aggressive efforts to promote energy-efficiency projects to reduce consumption of both electricity and gas, investing in cleaner energy produced by renewable sources, such as solar power, and creating incentives for nuclear power plants.

The backing of the Obama initiative was endorsed by two Democratic lawmakers who are on the ballot in November to be elected to Congress, likely to be a major forum on the wisdom of the EPA proposal.

“The impact of climate change presents a real and present danger for people across the country and the world,’’ said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Middlesex), who is seeking to represent the 12th congressional district.

Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) agreed. “It’s time to stop the bickering in our nation’s capital and find meaningful solutions before this gets worse,’’ said Norcross, who is running to fill the 1st district seat held by Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews, who chose not to run.

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