Chris Christie and the Politics of Cross-State Air Pollution

Michael Catania | December 1, 2011 | Opinion
Rather than cooperate with the EPA, the governor decides to go it alone, gunning for polluting power plants one by one

A recent press release trumpeted that “Governor Chris Christie is committed to protecting New Jersey’s air.” What followed was a lengthy summary of the various actions that the governor and his administration have taken to address air pollution in the Garden State, ranging from suing out-of-state, upwind power plants to promoting solar and other renewable energies.

Quite an impressive litany, really, so much so that most folks might have actually bought his story.

But buried amid the hype was the real exclusive: the press release was just a front for the governor’s decision not to join with other states in a lawsuit defending the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to crack down on the very power plants that the governor claimed to be trying to close.

According to Gov. Chris Christie, in his statement on the decision not to participate in the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule lawsuit, on November 7, 2011:

It is a priority of this Administration to achieve improved air quality for all residents of New Jersey and we are taking decisive action to hold out-of-state polluters accountable when they violate the Clean Air Act. Just today we joined an appeal with the federal government against one of the most polluting power plants in the nation, Homer City Station. Instead of participating in lawsuits just for the sake of appearances and giving the illusion of action, we are making a real difference in the fight against the most polluting power plants in the nation.”

So why is joining one lawsuit to rein in one polluting power plant considered “decisive action,” while supporting federal efforts to hold all such plants accountable is something “just for the sake of appearances and giving the illusion of action?”

The governor explained it this way: “My inclination is not to deal with these things on a blanket basis by giving more power over to the federal government. I think they have more than enough power as it is.”
So let me see if I follow that reasoning: it is good when New Jersey fights to control out-of-state power plants that poison our air, but somehow bad when the federal government steps up to defend New Jersey from cross-state air pollution?

Frankly, this reasoning appears to defy all logic, and is lame, at best. So what is really going on here?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the Orwellian logic of national Republican primary politics. Simply stated: EPA action is bad; state action is good. And no right-thinking Republican these days wants to be seen sticking up for over-reaching EPA head Lisa Jackson.

Instead, Christie would rather sue out of state-power-plants one by one, in an excruciating but colorful quest to enforce federal air pollution standards through state action. I wonder why the founding fathers never thought of that alternative to federalism?

The problem with this cynical approach is not just that it sells out New Jersey’s environmental and public health interests, which it clearly does. Every governor of either party since William Cahill has viewed taking all possible action to halt the transport of air pollutants from out-of-state power plants — including siding with the EPA in an administration of the opposite party — as beyond question. And no one can seriously doubt that comprehensive federal action is a much better way to protect New Jerseyans from the very real injuries and deaths that will surely result from this air pollution, than a quixotic state effort to seek justice one plant at a time. Isn’t that exactly why we have a federal government, and precisely why federal agencies like the EPA were created by Congress?

The governor’s decision to put his potential future as a player in national politics above the interests of the state voters who elected him also betrays the business community here in New Jersey. Business groups, including the State Chamber of Commerce, as well as major utility interests, urged the governor to join the lawsuit.

These economic interests correctly perceived that the EPA rule would have benefitted New Jersey businesses, and that every ton of air pollution that did not come from out-of-state power plants would make it easier for them to pursue new economic development opportunities here in the Garden State.

The truth of the matter is that it will be difficult for New Jersey to ever meet federal ambient air quality standards as long as out-of-state power plants contribute so many of our air pollution problems. The proposed EPA rule to control these sources is one of the few things that environmental and economic interests can easily agree on, and supporting this rule ought to be a no-brainer. But apparently that is beside the point.

A genuine irony of the governor’s position is the fact that, like too many other New Jerseyans, he suffers from asthma, and must understand on a personal level how seriously threatening this type of air pollution can be, particularly to our most vulnerable residents.

And then, of course, there is the final irony. In order for the Governor to succeed with his new strategy of “suing the bastards” who operate the offending out-of-state power plants, he will get to spend lots of quality time with some of his new favorite people — the men and women of the judiciary, on whom he has lavished such warm feelings in recent days.

So it looks like our Christmas gift this year is more air pollution and fewer opportunities to create jobs here in New Jersey — along with a large lump of coal in our stockings, courtesy of Gov. Christie and some dirty out-of-state power plants, which will be the real beneficiaries of the Governor’s new “clean air” strategy.