Legislature Acts to Ease Reentry into Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Tom Johnson | October 24, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Current action latest in a lengthy dispute between lawmakers and state Department of Environmental Protection

The Legislature yesterday moved on two fronts to prevent the state Department of Environmental Protection from repealing rules that let New Jersey formally opt out of a regional program designed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

The actions by the state Senate and Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee in largely partisan votes reflect a lengthy dispute between lawmakers and the Christie administration over the latter’s decision to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program endorsed by the Legislature in a law it enacted.

The backstory: Environmental groups sued the state arguing that it sought to get out of the RGGI program without holding public hearings, and a state appeals court agreed. In response, the DEP looked to repeal the rules directing it to enter the probate through a public hearing. The Legislature is contending the repeal is inconsistent with legislative intent.

The identical resolutions adopted by the Senate — in a 23-14 vote with only Sen. Christopher (Kip) Bateman siding with Democrats — and in a 3-2 vote along partisan lines in the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee aim to prevent the DEP from adopting rules allowing the state to exit the RGGI program.

The resolutions approved yesterday will not get New Jersey back into RGGI, but seeks to prevent DEP from repealing rules that would prevent future administrations from rejoining the program. Clean-energy advocates hope a new administration may opt to join RGGI, a program that not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but also provides millions of dollars to states to fund energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects.

The initiative, once envisioned as a prototype for an organization that would extend beyond the nine states in the regional program, is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by imposing a charge on the global-warming pollution they produce.

But Gov. Chris Christie pulled out of RGGI in 2011, arguing that the program was ineffective and merely amounted to a new tax on ratepayers, who absorbed the costs incurred by the power plants. He has twice vetoed legislative efforts to have the state rejoin the program.

In this case, the governor will not get much say, because he cannot veto the resolution (ACR-189). If it wins final legislative approval, the DEP has 30 days to either withdraw the rules or amend its regulations. If nothing happens, the Legislature can move to again repeal the proposed rules.

“In my opinion, it’s a great program,’’ said Assemblyman Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen), who noted that in just the past year, New Jersey has lost $11 million in funds raised from RGGI that could have funded clean-energy programs. By 2020, the state’s losses for failing to participate in the program could total $387 million, he said. “That’s a substantial amount of money.’’

Others disagreed Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi (R-Cumberland), who voted against the resolution, argued that New Jersey already has met its goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (one of the biggest sources of greenhouse-gas pollution).

“This ‘cap and trade’ program is nothing more than a ‘cap and tax’ scheme that hurts New Jersey consumers and businesses. This legislation will increase costs to ratepayers and drive jobs out of New Jersey without any benefit,’’ he said.

But others insisted that not participating in RRGI is a having a detrimental effect on New Jersey.

“Climate change in not an esoteric issue for New Jersey,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, saying it is already impacting places all across the state.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said once New Jersey decides to rejoin RGGI, it will have enormous impact. “The governor is not the decider here; it is the Legislature that is the decider,’’ she said.

“Contrary to the position taken in the summary of the proposal, the DEP remains obliged to establish rules and regulations pursuant to legislative intent,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) another cosponsor of the resolution.