Explainer: What Will It Take to Clean Up New Jersey’s Air?

Tom Johnson | October 13, 2015 | Explainer
The state has made significant progress in the push to clean up air pollution, but much more remains to be done

explainer button shadow
There is still much to be done, but in the past few decades, the state has made some meaningful strides in improving the quality of the air its residents breathe. In part, that is due to tough environmental regulation of the pollutants power plants, factories, and vehicles spew into air. New Jersey also benefits from the way much of the electricity residents and businesses use is produced. Half of the state’s electricity is generated by nuclear power plants, which produce no air pollution. New Jersey also has fewer coal plants (four) than most of the other states.

Still, significant problems with air quality persist, requiring additional efforts to reduce air pollution.

Smog: New Jersey has never complied with the federal health-quality standard for ground-level ozone, or smog as it is more commonly known. Smog forms when emissions from factories, power stations, and vehicles cook in sunlight and the hot summer sun. Exposure can cause severe respiratory problems to the young and elderly. The federal government earlier this month tightened health standards for the pollutant, which is likely to lead to even tougher controls on vehicle tailpipe emissions. But many environmentalists say that the standards fall short of protecting vulnerable populations from smog.

Soot: One of New Jersey’s big success stories is that the state has come into compliance with the federal Clean Air health standard for fine particulate matter, or soot. The federal government blames pollution from soot for causing tens of thousands of premature deaths nationwide each year. Soot is made up microscopic particles from many of the same sources that contribute to smog — power plants, manufacturing smokestacks, and vehicles. Tougher federal controls loom on many of those sources, which should help the state stay in compliance with the soot standard.

Other common air pollutants: For the most part, New Jersey has been in compliance with federal health-quality standards for three of the other four pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act — carbon monoxide, lead, and nitrogen oxide. The lone exception is sulfur dioxide, with Warren County failing to achieve the health standard, largely as the result of power plants and other facilities across the Delaware River. In addition, environmentalists say both the state and the federal governments need to better control air toxics, such as mercury.

What needs to be done? Probably the biggest gain in improving air quality in New Jersey involves wind-blown pollution from neighboring states, which accounts for more than half of the Garden State’s smog problems, according to modeling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency imposed a new rule to force those states to reduce such emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that regulation last year.

Greenhouse gas emissions: The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan aims to dramatically curb pollution that contributes to global climate change. If the rule survives what is expected to be a lengthy court battle, it will lead to a reduction in those emissions, but also other forms of air pollution from the same sources. The biggest target is emissions from vehicles, a goal that could lead to cleaner-running cars and trucks, as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles. To help achieve those goals, some say the state needs to do more to pave the way for electric cars.

Renewable energy: New Jersey has aggressive goals to shift to cleaner ways of producing electricity by promoting increased reliance on solar panels and developing offshore wind farms, although the latter is far from being realized. Clean-energy advocates and some lawmakers also want to ramp up the state’s reliance on renewable energy by having 80 percent of electricity used here come from those sources by 2050, a target some say is not feasible.