Can President’s New Climate Change Policy Help NJ Breathe Easier?

Aggressive campaign to curtail greenhouse gas emissions could revive state's flagging efforts on that front

President Barack Obama’s new initiative to combat climate change could help New Jersey achieve its aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even as some of the state’s programs to deal with the problem have been curtailed in recent years, according to environmentalists.

In a major policy announcement yesterday, the president outlined steps to require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, to curb greenhouse gas emissions from heavy trucks, and to develop more energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings.

The proposal comes at a time when efforts to reduce global climate change are mostly stymied, at both the federal and state levels. Congress has shown no inclination to deal with the issue, and the Christie administration has pulled New Jersey out of a regional initiative aimed at cutting back emissions contributing to global climate change.

The administration, with the cooperation of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, also has diverted more than $800 million in funds — supported by utility ratepayers to finance clean energy programs — in recent years to plug holes in the state budget. Obama’s plan, however, includes new federal funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Still, it is increasingly questionable whether the state, without aggressive federal intervention, will achieve the goals of a law passed during the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine to shave greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 2006 levels by 2050.

‘”What the president is doing here is more important than anywhere else,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “The federal government will be pushing states like New Jersey to deal with climate change.’’

Doug O’Malley, interim director for Environment New Jersey, agreed.

“Obviously, the Christie administration has taken a backward stance on climate change, but President Obama just gave New Jersey a big assist with its climate plan,’’ he said.

The Obama plan will make it more difficult for coal plants to be viable in the future, an issue not as significant in New Jersey, where the few coal plants still remaining mostly run on cheaper natural gas, than in the South and Midwest.

“Most importantly, it puts another nail in the coffin of rust belt coal plants, which pollute New Jersey’s air and spew out ungodly amounts of greenhouse gas emissions,’’ O”Malley said.

But Republican leaders in Congress said the new measures will mean new increases in electric bills and also eliminate jobs in the coal industry, which, until recently, supplied the majority of electricity in the nation.

That issue is important to New Jersey where consumers and businesses pay some of the highest energy bills in the country, a recurring criticism that has made lawmakers and the administration sensitive to any new programs that would increase electricity costs.

Nevertheless, some groups in the energy sector applauded the president’s announcement.

“Today, we view the president’s renewed focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as an important step,’’ according to the Clean Energy Group, a coalition that includes the Public Services Enterprise Group, owner of one of the largest generating fleets in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“As our member companies’ experience demonstrates, greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved cost-effectively,” the coalition continued. PSEG’s power plants include nuclear generating stations, which do not produce global climate pollution, and natural gas plants, which are much cleaner than coal plants.

The American Public Power Association, an organization representing nonprofit state and electrically owned public utilities, also basically endorsed the administration’s plans.

APPA said, “it supports several aspect of President Obama’s proposal to address climate change, including his plans to increase energy efficiency efforts, streamline hydropower and other renewable resource development, and increase our use of nuclear power.’’