Fine Print: Connecticut vs. American Power

The Christie administration backs out of a regional effort to force some of the largest utilities in the U.S. to cut greenhouse gases.

Summary: The Christie administration has quietly withdrawn from a lawsuit the state had joined with seven other northeast states against some of the biggest electric utilities in the U.S. Filed in 2004, the lawsuit marked a regional effort to force the utilities to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent a year over 10 years. The lawsuit was originally dismissed by a lower court but later reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Why it matters: New Jersey has a long history of joining with its neighbors in litigation seeking to address the region’s air pollution problems, ranging from its smog-fouled air during summer months to acid rain and other pollutants. The administration’s withdrawal from the lawsuit marks the first time the state has backed out of litigation on the environment and air pollution.

Why it withdrew: According to a statement released by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, “the lawsuit that was originally filed in 2004 has been effectively mooted by the 2007 Supreme Court decision declaring that the regulation of greenhouse emissions is a federal issue. Considering the Supreme Court’s ruling and the Obama administration’s subsequent position that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must determine an appropriate plan of action, it does not make sense to incur further taxpayer expense on an unnecessary lawsuit.”

Big point of contention: The issue of global climate change has become a political football between Republicans who control Congress and the Democratic administration. Earlier this month, a House subcommittee approved a bill stripping the federal EPA of the authority to regulate these emissions. Meanwhile, the litigation brought by the Northeast states is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why this action worries environmentalists: The withdrawal represents the latest step by Gov. Chris Christie to back off on state efforts to combat climate change. In his first budget, he diverted some $60 million in funds raised by a regional effort to combat greenhouse emissions, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Last year, the governor expressed skepticism about climate change at a Town Hall meeting. Clean energy advocates fear the administration may also opt to pull out of the RGGI effort, which many view as a model for what the national government should be doing to fight climate change.

Political background: For the governor, the issue reflects the tightrope he must walk in making policy calls on hotly debated issues. Since New Jersey is a coastal state, many residents support efforts to reduce global warming, but the issue is anathema to the right wing of the Republican party.

What’s next: The issue is likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which must decide whether the states had the legal standing to bring action against the utilities.