Environmental Issues Take a Back Seat to the Economy

Tom Johnson | January 10, 2012 | Energy & Environment
In last lame duck session, lobbyists fail to stop what they say are environmentally unfriendly bills from being sent to the governor's desk

Dena Mottola Jaborska has spent the last decade lobbying on environmental issues in the Statehouse but couldn’t recall another day as bad as yesterday for her cause.

“It’s definitely the worst when you consider the sheer number of bad bills being considered,” said Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, early yesterday afternoon before both houses went into session on the final day of the 214th legislature.

Her organization was among many of the state’s major environmental groups lobbying to prevent a range of bills from becoming law — from a bill (S-3156) that would delay implementation of critical water quality rules to a measure (S-1954) that would allow logging on public lands to legislation (A-2528) that would deplete a clean energy fund used to promote energy efficiency projects.

The day was no more fruitful for solar energy advocates as a bill (S-2371), which earlier in the day seemed dead, was revived and then failed to be posted as diverse factions in the solar sector could not agree on a compromise version. It likely will surface early in the next session, however, since its proponents said the measure could avert another meltdown in the price of solar credits for the electricity those systems produce, a trend that has prompted fears the market could collapse.

The day began on a bad note for conservationists when the Senate Judiciary Committee released the nomination of Richard Vohden, a Sussex County freeholder, to be a member of the Highlands Council, a group overseeing development in the 800,000 acre Highlands region. His nomination had been blocked for months because he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law preserving the Highlands. He was confirmed by the full Senate shortly after 10 p.m.

Making the day more galling from the environmentalists’ perspective was the decision by legislative leadership not to post bills they had lobbied for, including a legislative veto of a proposed rule that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to waive certain environmental standards under certain circumstances.

“This was bloody Monday, but it could have been worse,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, noting that the logging bill never got to the governor’s desk and a bill granting extension of permits to developers failed to be posted. “There are worse days ahead,” he said.

There were a number of good bills that were never even posted, Tittel added. They included a bill to limit children’s exposure to pesticides at playgrounds, a bill increasing the state’s target for renewable energy from 22.5 percent to 30 percent, and a bill that would have prevented the governor from withdrawing New Jersey from a regional program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Both houses are controlled by Democrats, who, in the past, have typically supported environmental issues, but that was not the case this session, which has seen the party back Christie administration initiatives geared to stimulate the economy.

“This is about using economic conditions to undo environmental regulations that the building lobby has been after ever since they were enacted,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “The Democrats want to please the developers.”

Dillingham came to the Statehouse to lobby particularly against (S-3156), a bill that would delay implementation of tough new water quality rules aimed at preserving more than 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land. Yesterday’s vote to send the bill to the governor is the latest twist in what has been an ongoing battle to roll back the rules, adopted in 2008. Two years later, the legislature voted to delay their implementation, but the bill was vetoed by then Gov. Jon Corzine.

Environmentalists blamed the roll back of environmental rules and other setbacks on a legislative leadership that is not pro-environment. “You have a leadership that’s allied with the governor. That’s the real problem,” Jaborska said.

Tittel agreed, saying the leadership in both houses first backed Gov. Chris Christie’s attack on labor, and now they are setting their efforts on environmental regulations.
Business lobbyists disputed the environmentalists’ take on the day. Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said the day’s agenda reflected recognition of how bad the state’s economy is.

“I think the legislature has had a reality check,” Egenton said. “They realize that jobs and the economy are the top priority. When they look at a bill, they ask, ‘Does it create jobs, does it stimulate the economy, and can it put people to work?’ ” he said.

Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council agreed. He pointed to a bill (S-2371), which aimed to help the solar energy sector by increasing the amount of electricity that must come from that technology. It failed to win approval in both houses despite intensive lobbying from a cadre of lobbyists representing the solar sector.

“The legislature is acutely aware of the hard economic times we’re in,” he said. “If you look at the subsidies for the solar sector, the state just can’t afford it any more.”