The environment may emerge as a pivotal issue in next fall’s gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey, with President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of an Oklahoma lawyer to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who spearheaded the state’s efforts to derail the Obama administration’s key plan to fight climate change, is reportedly the Republican’s choice to be administrator of the agency in charge of protecting the nation’s water, air, and other resources.
His tentative selection drew immediate criticism from environmentalists who characterized him as a fossil-fuel advocate and skeptic of climate change science but plaudits from industry lobbyists who lauded his efforts to block what they view as the federal agency’s regulatory overreach.
Trump campaigned vowing to dismantle the EPA and scrap Obama’s Clean Power Plan to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, actions that would have adverse consequences on New Jersey’s air and water, as well as its efforts to stem sea-level rise, according to environmentalists.
His choice has been a legal architect to undo some of those protections, having sued the agency over rules to limit mercury emissions from power plants, over wetlands protections, and over air-quality regulations to fight smog and soot pollution.
“Pruitt has been a vocal critic of federal overreach and understands that state agencies are well-positioned to take on a larger role in protecting the environment, while also allowing for responsible and necessary commerce and energy production,’’ said John Nothdurft, director of governmental relations for The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Illinois.
But with some of the strongest environmental laws in the nation on the books in New Jersey and state authority over how they are enforced in many cases, it makes the 2017 gubernatorial election all the more critical, environmentalists said.
“It does up the ante for next year’s gubernatorial race,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, an organization that already has launched a campaign to make the environment a defining issue in that election. “Our only hope is to have a pro-environmental governor to stave off degradation of our environment.’’
“A war on EPA will have real impact on New Jersey, but we can still be a real bulwark against the Trump administration,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, “Eleven months from now, New Jersey can send a clear message that you cannot trample on the environment.’’
The irony is that for the past seven years, most environmental groups have been battling the Christie administration’s attempts — in their view — to roll back the state’s environmental protections. At times, the federal EPA has sided with those groups, cautioning the administration that some of its proposals failed to comply with federal standards.
A less aggressive EPA could pose problems for the state because it addresses many environmental problems from a regional perspective, particularly protecting water resources shared by states, wind-blown air pollution, and efforts to deal with climate change, according to Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
“But because we have strong laws, if we can uphold them and implement them, we can suffer less than the rest of the country,’’ Dillingham said.
In many cases, New Jersey has stronger environmental laws than federal regulations require. In addition, the state has oversight of a number of federal environmental programs, including several dealing with protection of waterways and wetlands.
“New Jersey can stand up to the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental protections,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We are going to need a governor that stands up to protecting the environment.’’