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Opinion: Candidate Christie’s Fateful About-Face on Wind Power

The governor, then a presidential hopeful, didn’t blow hot and cold on wind energy -- he gave it an arctic blast

potter
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

In her doomed attempt to deny Gov. Chris Christie a second term as governor in 2013, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D) warned voters that Christie would use the governorship for one overriding purpose -- as a launching pad for his all-too-obvious presidential ambitions.

At the time, this claim, which now seems prophetically accurate, was greeted with a collective ho-hum by most pundits and much of the electorate. She also warned of the unholy "bro-mance" between Christie and the Democratic Party bosses, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and South Jersey’s major-domo George Norcross, who endorsed Christie and did not lift a finger or spare a buck to help Buono's shoestring campaign.

Now some three years later, Buono seems fully vindicated in her warnings. What the public failed to grasp at the time was how completely Christie would tie every major public-policy decision to a litmus test best summarized as, “will it help me or hurt me in the Republican presidential primaries?”

Once Christie began campaigning earnestly in New Hampshire, which became his veritable second home, the governor flip-flopped on one policy stance after another. Christie spent as much as 260 days out of the state he was elected to govern. It didn’t matter if his many "switcheroos" harmed New Jersey.

As one example, little noted to date, his administration jettisoned the governor’s early support for wind energy, doubtless to stroke Republican Party mega-donors, such as the Koch brothers, who made their billions in the oil, gas, and coal industries.

In 2010, Christie endorsed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act (OWEDA) that was intended to make New Jersey not only a leader in harnessing wind power to generate carbon-free electricity but also as a manufacturing and assembly site for the huge wind turbines that already dot much of the coastline of Great Britain and Scandinavian countries.

During a heavily attended press conference, standing with leading Democrats -- including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney who hopes to replace him in 2018 -- Christie proclaimed his ardent support for offshore wind power in ringing terms:

“The [OWEDA] will provide New Jersey with an opportunity to leverage our vast resources and innovative technologies to allow businesses to engage in new and emerging sectors of the energy industry… Developing New Jersey’s renewable energy’s resources and industry is critical to our state’s future. My administration will maintain a strong commitment to make our state a home for growth, as well as a national leader in the wind power movement.”

That was then, this is now; so much for his "strong commitment."

When Christie hit the presidential campaign trail, first as a candidate and now as a Donald Trump surrogate, his administration turned solidly against offshore wind, even as other East Coast states rally in favor of it.

The principal agent of Christie's policy reversal has been the Board of Public Utilities, an ostensibly independent utility regulator charged by OWEDA with the job of fashioning regulations to underwrite one demonstration wind project to be located 2.8 miles seaward of Atlantic City.

Shortly after enactment of OWEDA, an unlikely consortium of professional fishermen, aptly named Fishermen’s Atlantic City Windfarm, LLC, stepped forward with proposals to build and operate a modest 25-megawatt wind-energy system that met every requirement of the new law. One of the leaders of the company, Paul Gallagher, had directed Atlantic County's first-in-the-state foray into wind-energy development, the highly successful land-based wind turbines that greet visitors to the casino resort.

One of the key mandates of OWEDA was that the project must show “net economic benefits” as the price for obtaining BPU approval of a complicated financing system paid for mostly by state ratepayers. Fishermen’s Energy duly complied, demonstrating net benefits over the lifetime of the project estimated at a low of $33.39 million and a high estimate of $602 million. Using either figure the project looked like a surefire winner.

And sure enough, after an extensive vetting process, on June 27, 2013 the state’s Ratepayer Advocate office signed a formal stipulation agreeing that the project complied with OWEDA, is in the public interest, and should be approved by the BPU.

Normally, once the advocate has signed off, the BPU quickly follows suit. But not this time. As if fishing for some plausible reason to deep-six the project, the utility regulators ruled that the proposal, “lacked transparency” and failed to demonstrate, “sufficient access to capital” to ensure completion and operation, despite the financial backing of a $1 billion-plus Chinese company and a $47 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the agency’s disapproval was the claim that Fishermen’s Energy submitted a statement of economic support from Chinese investors that no one at the board could read because it was written in Mandarin. But what the BPU failed to note is that the project team had also provided an English translation.

Meanwhile, as motions for reconsideration and judicial appeals were being filed and argued, the Christie administration formally withdrew its support for offshore wind in its 2015 Energy Master Plan update:

“Although OWEDA provides an opportunity for the offshore-wind industry to prove itself … the Act is also intended to prevent New Jersey’s businesses and residential ratepayers from being exposed to unreasonable risks. While the future may bring change, offshore wind in the United States is not economically viable at this time.”

Really?

The recent auction of federal waters for offshore wind development has brought with it numerous well-financed European wind developers who are decidedly convinced that their experience in the U.K. and the North Sea can be replicated in the United States. This summer also heralded the completion of the Deepwater Block Island Windfarm, providing a much-need jumpstart for the industry.

More positive news comes from other East Coast states. Massachusetts and Maryland have announced plans for large-scale (350 - 1,000 megawatt) wind farms , many times the size of the proposed Atlantic City pilot project, to capture some of this abundant carbon-free energy source.

Last month marked the 75th birthday of Bob Dylan, who famously sang “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” Whatever was the question back then, these lyrics are at least a partial answer to the question, "Where can we find sufficient renewable-energy sources to prevent the looming disaster of global warming that directly threatens every square mile of the Jersey shore and low-lying cities such as Hoboken?” Offshore wind energy projects such as Fishermen’s deserve our full-throated support.

But is anybody in the governor’s office listening to the answer that’s blowing in the wind?

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.

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