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With Democratic Governor, Garden State Would Be Much Greener

Candidates are mostly in accord on ramping up renewables, rejoining RGGI, and reversing some of Gov. Christie’s environmental and energy programs

gubernatorial candidates
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Candidates, from left, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jim Johnson, and Sen. Ray Lesniak

If a Democrat wins the governor’s race, count on big changes in New Jersey’s energy policies.

All four of the major candidates running for Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination are talking about expanding the green economy and reversing some of Gov. Chris Christie’s environmental and energy programs.

New Jersey would rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate program it once was part of to clean up carbon pollution from power plants. All the candidates want to expand efforts to rely on solar and wind power to provide all, if not most, of the state’s electricity. They plan to halt the Christie administration’s push to expand the natural-gas infrastructure, a policy that has seen more than a dozen different proposed pipelines.

Phil Murphy
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy

Unlike past years, the environment has not emerged as a big issue in the race. Frontrunner Phil Murphy garnered endorsements from three environmental groups. Sen. Ray Lesniak, a longtime Democrat lawmaker from Elizabeth, has probably talked about the issue the most, primarily his efforts to overturn a pollution settlement involving ExxonMobil that has been heavily criticized by environmentalists.

Little disagreement

There has so little disagreement among the frontrunners that the only major dispute at least on environmental issues emerged in one of their debates — frontrunner Phil Murphy’s extensive energy holdings in stocks, including companies involved in building some of those pipelines, among them one that will transport fuel from fracking locations in Pennsylvania.

Murphy offered no excuses after the debate: “There are probably no good answers for those investments,’’ the former Goldman Sachs executive told reporters. He plans to put the investments in a blind trust if he wins.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Assemblyman John Wisniewski

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Middlesex, has been the most vocal in criticizing Murphy. “Phil Murphy is not a novice investor. It’s a whole basket of deplorables that end up fouling the environment,’’ Wisniewski said of the investments. “You can’t have it both ways.’’

Murphy, like Jim Johnson, declined to be interviewed for this story; they also did not answer questions submitted by NJ Spotlight.

100 percent renewable

Jim Johnson
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Jim Johnson

Both Johnson and Murphy have vowed to have 100 percent of New Jersey’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2050. Legislation to have 80 percent of the power come from solar, offshore wind, and other renewables has been kicking around the Legislature for the past several months, but is not close to winning final approval.

On his website, Murphy said he will back plans to build offshore wind farms, restore the state Office of Climate Change, and aim to curb carbon pollution by electrifying the transportation sector.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak
Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Sen. Raymond Lesniak

Both Wisniewski and Lesniak expressed opposition to efforts by Public Service Enterprise Group to have ratepayers subsidize their nuclear power units, which are facing economic troubles because of the low price of natural gas.

“Broadly speaking, I can’t see any argument where that benefits ratepayers,’’ Wisniewski said. Lesniak agreed. “It’s their investment and their investors should be bearing it, not the ratepayers or taxpayers,’’ he said.

Lesniak, the author of several major environmental laws in the state, would, if elected, order the state Department of Environmental Protection to immediately have the Drinking Water Quality Institute adopt recommendations for tightening standards for a dozen contaminants found in public water supplies. He also would stop three proposed natural-gas pipelines currently under consideration.

Wisniewski also vowed to stop the pipelines, saying he would instruct his commissioner of the DEP not to issue permits the projects are required to obtain.

“When you talk about environmental protection, it all starts with the governor. And you need a DEP commissioner who is interested in protecting the environment,’’ he said.

On his website, Johnson focused on creating green jobs by investing in training for good-paying employment. The former federal treasury official also said he would expand funding for renewable-energy research and put a priority on putting solar and wind energy on public buildings.

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