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Legislature, DEP Could Clash Over Efforts to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

At issue, New Jersey’s ability to participate in multistate program to clean up pollution from power plants

NJ DEP (trenton)
Credit: Amanda Brown

The Legislature is moving to block the state Department of Environmental Protection from repealing rules that would allow New Jersey to participate in a multistate effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

The resolution (SCR-125) sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) says that a proposal by DEP to repeal the regulations is inconsistent with legislative intent that directed the agency to adopt rules governing the state’s potential participation in the program.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee will consider the resolution on Monday, renewing a long-running dispute between legislators and the Christie administration over its decision to pull New Jersey out of the program at the end of 2011. Since then, lawmakers have twice voted to have the state rejoin the program, only to have the measures vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

If the latest measure wins legislative approval, it still will not force the administration to rejoin the program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Still, proponents say the resolution is important.

“This is not symbolic,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It will allow the state to more easily rejoin RGGI.’’ But even he and others acknowledged that is unlikely to happen until the state has a new governor.

The regional program, developed originally by 10 Northeast states, is designed as a way to curb pollution causing global climate change from power plants. These facilities are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Christie pulled out of the program nearly three years ago, saying it was ineffective and merely amounted to a new tax on utility customers. This past March, however, a state court ruled the action was illegal because the administration did not hold a public process on its decision. Since then, the DEP proposed a new rule allowing the state to withdraw from the program, but the new regulations have not yet been adopted.

To advocates of the program, which requires power companies to pay for the global warming pollution they emit, the withdrawal from RGGI deprives New Jersey of some big economic benefits. The money paid by the power plants is used to fund an assortment of clean-energy programs.

At one time, backers of the program hoped it would serve as a successful model for a national version. But any such effort has been a nonstarter in Congress, resulting in the Obama administration proposing its own controversial rules to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

“Sitting on the sidelines of RGGI is a huge missed opportunity for New Jersey,’’ said Peter Shattuck, director of market initiatives with Energy Northeast, which conducted an analysis of how much the state has lost since quitting the program.

The study projected that the state will lose $500 million by 2020, money that could have been invested in energy efficiency and clean-energy projects, according to the analysis.

“New Jersey’s neighbors are boosting their economics by cleaning up power plants,’’ said Scott Needham, president of Princeton Air and Efficiency First. “RGGI is helping to reduce pollution, while at the same time supporting economic development, creating new jobs, and saving consumers money on energy. But at the same time, we’re missing out.’’

Independent analysis predicts that RGGI will generate $8.7 billion in economic growth and 132,00 job-years of employment in participating states over the next 10 years, while cutting power plant pollution by another 15 percent.

With New Jersey battered by a spate of extreme storm, including Hurricane Sandy, advocates say the state cannot afford to continue to sit out the program.

“In a post-Sandy New Jersey, we can’t afford to ignore climate change,’’ O’Malley said.

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