‘Green’ To-Do List Won’t Get Wrapped Up Before End of Legislative Session

Disputing DEP rules about water quality and flooding, along with sewer placement regulations, loom large but likely to be carried over

With only a week left in the current legislative session, lawmakers will leave a host of energy and environmental issues unresolved, particularly those involving policy differences with the Christie administration.

The disputes range from ramping up the state’s dependence on renewable energy, to blocking controversial new environmental regulations for protecting water quality and preventing flooding, to stewardship of parks and public lands.

All have been taken up by the Legislature, but are yet to win final approval and unlikely to do by the end of the session next week. To environmentalists, the most pressing concern is convincing lawmakers to block a pair of new rules proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The proposed regulations would significantly revamp the state’s water-quality standards that are intended to safeguard streams and other waterways. A separate rule would determine where new or expanded wastewater treatment plants can go, a primary factor in allowing development.

The DEP proposed the water-quality rule this past June as a way of streamlining a regulatory process builders and others criticized as overly burdensome and duplicative of other state regulations.

But environmentalists say the rule goes too far in easing regulations that protect streams and avert flooding — concerns echoed by two federal agencies that suggested the changes may be contrary to national regulatory requirements.

In response, the Legislature has invoked a rarely used tool that allows lawmakers to block the adoption of a rule if it believes it is inconsistent with previous laws they have passed. If the Assembly approves a resolution already approved by the Senate (SCR-180), it could force the DEP to withdraw the rule.

If the state agency fails to do so, both houses could then pass a resolution to rescind the rule in the next legislative session.

In late December, the Legislature gave final approval to a similar resolution (SCR-125), objecting to the Christie administration’s decision to pull out of a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Gov. Chris Christie withdrew from the program, calling it ineffective and a new tax on utility customers.

The other contested DEP rule proposal deals with revamping the regulations governing the planning process for determining areas suitable for new sewer systems or sewer lines. Again, the department argued the changes reduce unnecessary red tape that hinders economic development and affords more flexibility to local officials.

But conservationists worry the proposal will lead to more sprawl and pollution, and possibly strain water supplies in New Jersey. They also fear that the rule would lead to more development in the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for millions of residents. If the rule is adopted, opponents vow to challenge it in the courts, as well as ask the Legislature to block its implementation.

The issue of how to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels is sure to be a continuing source of controversy through 2016 and beyond. To some, the issue is particularly important given the slew of natural-gas pipeline projects pending in the state, many traversing previously preserved public land and farmland.

Most of the projects aim to capitalize on plentiful supplies of natural gas being extracted in Pennsylvania, which have lowered heating bills for utility customers. The trend has led clean-energy advocates to push for a big escalation in the state’s reliance on renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. It also spurred legislation to ensure the state is properly compensated for use of public land for such projects.

The Senate also has approved a bill (S-2444), which has yet to be taken up by the Assembly, to require 80 percent of the electricity generated in the state to come from renewable sources by the year 2050. Even if approved by the Assembly, however, advocates concede it is unlikely to be signed into law by the governor.

Nevertheless, they hope the bill will help lay the groundwork for the state to take more aggressive steps to reduce carbon pollution contributing to global warming.