NJ Accused of Illegally Dropping Out of Greenhouse Gas Initiative

In lawsuit, environmentalists say DEP failed to follow procedures when leaving RGGI

The Christie administration is accused of illegally pulling New Jersey out of a regional initiative aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday.

The lawsuit, filed in the appellate division of Superior Court in Trenton, argues the state Department of Environmental Protection made procedural errors when it pulled New Jersey out of the10-state program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The decision to withdraw the state from the program has become a major bone of contention between environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers on one side and the Republican administration on the other. Last month, the Legislature passed a bill to keep New Jersey in the program, but Gov. Chris Christie has yet to act on it.

“RGGI offers Garden State residents enormously popular benefits — cleaner air, healthier kids, homegrown jobs, lower energy bills and more money for the state,” said Luis Martinez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of two environmental organizations which filed the lawsuit.

“It’s no surprise that a program like this has strong support in the Statehouse and among New Jersey residents,” he said. “Gov. Christie should heed their call and stick with the program, rather than listen to out-of-state interests in the dirty fuel industry that are calling for him to drop out.”

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said the steps to pull out of the initiative were taken after consultation with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. “We believe we fully complied with the requirements of the law,” Ragonese said.

In announcing he was withdrawing New Jersey from the program in May 2011, Christie called the initiative merely a tax on the state’s residents and businesses. “It’s a bureaucracy that is unnecessary,” Ragonese said.

The lawsuit contends the administration failed to follow procedures under the New Jersey Administrative Procedure Act, which requires the state to provide notice of its intention to repeal a regulation, as well as give the public reasonable opportunity to comment before moving forward with a repeal.

Given this, the NRDC and Environment New Jersey, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, contend the programs is still law, and the administration and New Jersey utilities must abide by it.

“Gov. Christie unilaterally made his decision to leave RGGI — without taking any input from stakeholders or the public,” said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “As we contend today, his actions are not only bad public policy, but also illegal.”

While the move drew criticism from some quarters, most business interests backed the governor’s action, saying it made little sense to participate in a program, which escalated already steep energy bills in the state. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group, also lobbied against the program, launching a blitz of ads on radio elsewhere to convince the administration to pull out of the initiative.

Critics say, however, the state will never achieve aggressive goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as mandated under the Global Warming Response Act passed during the Corzine administration. It set targets of reducing those emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

A report by the DEP said the state could achieve those goals primarily through three programs — the state Energy Master Plan, a program to usher in low emission vehicles modeled after California, and RGGI.

“The 2050 target is almost impossible to achieve without using every tool in the toolbox,” Elliott said.

During New Jersey’s participating in RGGI, the sale of pollution permits has generated $159 million in local benefits, including $125 million for the state to invest in local, job-creating energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.