Senate Committee Votes Out Bill That Would Require Return to RGGI

Business interests claim rejoining regional initiative to lower greenhouse gases would drive up price of power in Garden State

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester)
Bolstered by a two-day-old appeals court ruling apparently reinforcing its case, a Senate panel yesterday approved a bill (S-151) that would require New Jersey rejoin a regional initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change.

The bill, the latest legislative effort to have the state once again be a part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), would clarify the intent of a 2007 law intended to allow New Jersey to participate in the regional program. The bill makes clear the seven-year-old law mandated, not suggested, participation.

Gov. Chris Christie, in a move that angered clean energy advocates, pulled out of RGGI in 2011, saying the program was ineffective and amounted to a new tax on utility customers.

Past legislative efforts to get New Jersey back into RGGI have not succeeded, most being blocked by the Republican governor. But his action also led two leading environmental organizations to challenge the decision in court. On Tuesday, a three-judge appeals court ruled that the state failed to follow the law when abandoning regulations designed to implement the program.

The court decision does not force the governor to rejoin RGGI, merely to follow proper procedures in either repealing or amending rules to control climate-change pollution from power plants. In quoting at length from various laws aimed at dealing with climate change, the court clearly said “there can be little doubt’’ they were intended to enable the state’s participation in the program.

And while Christie may well again veto the bill if it gets through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), its sponsor, has a lot more leverage to negotiate with the governor than past sponsors of similar bills. Or he can choose to try and override the veto.

The bill passed the Senate Environment and Energy Committee 4-1, with support from Sen. Chris (“Kip”) Bateman (R-Somerset), a longtime backer of the program,.

At the same hearing, the panel approved another bill to establish a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracking, a process used to extract natural gas from shale formations. Its sponsor is Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), who seldom bucks positions taken by the administration.

Sweeney called participating in RGGI a matter of simple common sense in a press release issued after the committee’s vote. He posited that it provides a good funding source for renewable energy programs, such as solar and wind.

“By pulling out of this coalition, the administration has put essential alternative energy projects, and the jobs that they would create in New Jersey, at risk,’’ Sweeney said.

The RGGI program imposes a surcharge on power plant pollution with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The money raised by the program is used to fund a variety of clean-energy programs, such as solar and wind projects, as well as helping to finance energy efficiency efforts, which reduce consumption of electricity and natural gas.

Since New Jersey pulled out of the program, the surcharges have generated about $1.5 billion, 80 percent of which have been invested by the other states in energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, and energy assistance programs, according to Kate Millsaps of the Sierra Club of New Jersey.

In the public hearing on the bill, environmentalists and others praised the measure as a crucial tool in helping meet the state’s aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Business interests, however, said the bill imposes unnecessary taxes that will drive up energy costs in New Jersey.

“We need to do more to lower energy costs,’’ Sara Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, told the committee. “We’re going to see higher electric costs.’’

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the groups that brought the challenge to the RGGI pullout, disagreed.

“Our governor is sadly out of step on this issue. You cannot rule by fiat, or in this case, by the DEP’s website,’’ he said, alluding to how the Department of Environmental Protection withdrew the carbon pollution rules. “This is a program that works.’’