Will NJ Pull Plug on Promoting Zero-Emission Vehicles?

Christie administration’s track record on greenhouse-gas emissions worries clean-energy advocates

electric car
The Christie administration has already pulled New Jersey out of a regional initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Does that mean the state’s efforts to encourage use of zero- emission vehicles — as proposed under the California Low Emission Vehicle program – will end as well?

That question is being raised by clean-energy advocates as the Senate is poised to concur Monday with Governor Chris Christie’s conditional veto of a bill (A-3028) that would establish a new task force to determine what obstacles are preventing wider use of alternate-fuel vehicles.

Buried in the nine-page conditional veto issued in January and subsequently incorporated into a revised Assembly bill concurring with the conditional veto is an one-paragraph provision giving the state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner the authority to accept or reject the task force’s recommendation on implementation of the zero-emission vehicle requirement.

Given the administration’s history of pulling out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, abolishing the state Office of Climate Change, and deciding not to join an eight-state initiative to promote clean cars, environmentalists are wary of the provision in the zero-emission vehicle bill.

“It’s another program held hostage to Christie’s national presidential ambitions,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a frequent critic of the administration.

But the California program, adopted a decade ago by the state Legislature after a prolonged battle, is hugely controversial itself, mostly because it requires car manufacturers to sell a significant amount of low-emission vehicles over the next several years—whether or not consumers want to buy them.

“Nobody wants the clean-car initiative to be successful more than new car dealers,’’ said Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Auto Retailers, noting the dealers would love to boost their sales. But over the next seven or eight model years, the dealers would have to sell 200,000 cars that consumers would not buy otherwise, especially if the infrastructure — plug-in vehicle charging stations — is not in place, according to Appleton.

“It’s probably good governance,’’ said Appleton, referring to the provision allowing the DEP commissioner to reject implementation of the zero-emission vehicle requirement.

“We can’t solve this problem by wishing it away,’’ he said. “The debate has to happen whether we should pull the plug or not.’’

By many accounts, New Jersey is lagging behind other states in building the charging stations necessary to convince the public to buy electric vehicles. In part, it reflects a disagreement between Christie and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

In a series of bills, few of which have yet to be enacted into law, legislators have pushed various tax incentives to encourage installation of charging stations at rest stops, shopping malls and other locations. The idea is to reduce range anxiety among consumers who buy plug-in electric vehicles, reassuring them that they will not be stranded if their vehicles stray too far beyond the range of their electric batteries.

But Christie, in his conditional veto, said the bill is inconsistent with the state’s new energy master plan. The plan encourages development of alternatively-fueled vehicles, but the governor balked at the public — rather than private — investment.

“New Jersey’s already overburdened taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize the alternatively-fueled vehicle market by funding the types of tax incentives Assembly Bill No. 3028 seeks to study,’’ Christie said in his veto message.

Some clean-energy advocates welcomed the creation of the new clean-vehicle task force, which is empowered not only to explore the virtues of plug-in electric vehicles, but to also investigate the use of vehicles in commercial fleets, such as those powered by natural gas or other alternative fuels.

“Anything that draws attention to the deployment of alternatively-fueled vehicles, particularly at the highest levels of state government, is a worthy endeavor in my opinion,’’ said Chuck Feinberg, president and chairman of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting cleaner cars.

Others were not so accommodating.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the bill “is trying to deepen our hole to deal with climate change by failing to focus on the largest source of emissions contributing to global warming, which is cars and vehicles.’’

Indeed, the state’s plan for reducing its share of global climate emissions, adopted in the final days of the Corzine administration, called for three main steps to reach a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

One of the components was the 10-year state initiative to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Another was the effort to reduce emissions from vehicles, a major source of global-warming pollution.

Finally, the state suggested the new energy master plan would also help New Jersey’s reduce carbon footprint — the pollution contributing to global climate change — by promoting cleaner ways of producing electricity, such as offshore wind farms. But with delays at both the state and federal levels, the goals of developing 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 seem increasingly elusive.