Three Strikes Against NJ ‘Greens’: Trump, Congress, New EPA Chief

Tom Johnson | February 21, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Do Garden State environmentalists have any leverage against this triple threat?

Scott Pruitt, newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency
Seldom has the political climate seemed so grim for New Jersey’s environmental community.

Having spent the past seven years challenging, criticizing, and often suing Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, they now face the prospect of battling a new president vowing to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency.

And President Donald Trump now has his nominee in place to oversee the job, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who as that state’s top lawyer sued the EPA more than a dozen times.

“It’s a triple hit,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s President Trump, it’s Scott Pruitt and it’s Congress. This is the most dire straits the environment has been in since possibly the first Earth Day.’’

In the past, when faced with pro-business administrations in Washington, D.C., the environmental movement usually could count on a Democratic Congress to block some rollbacks, but the Republican-led Congress seems ill-inclined to assume the role. It already has overturned an Obama regulation blocking coal mines from dumping waste into streams.

Or a pro-environmental governor holed up in his office in Trenton could come to the rescue. That’s not the case these days with environmentalists more likely to sue the Christie administration than join him for a bill signing. The administration has been brought to court by environmentalists over his decision to pull out of a regional pact combating greenhouse gas emissions; approval of a pipeline through the Pinelands; adoption of new coastal protection rules; and settlement of a multimillion dollar pollution suit with ExxonMobil, to name just a few.

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen before,’’ conceded Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “At least with Gov. Christie, we had the EPA as a backstop some times.’’

To Potosnak and others, that is why this November’s gubernatorial race is so important. His organization already has endorsed Democrat Phil Murphy. “We have to make sure we have a green governor to stand up for the environment.’’

In the meantime, some of the most pressing threats are likely to resemble “a death by a thousand cuts,’’ according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. He fears budget cuts in the EPA’s spending will impact programs to protect drinking water, improvements to sewage-treatment plants, and numerous other initiatives funded by the federal government.

If the Trump administration does try to roll back protections in environmental programs, New Jersey has the benefit of having been delegated responsible for overseeing some of the nation’s most important laws to protect the environment by the EPA, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

“The best way to survive Trump is to do good things in the states,’’ said David Pringle, director of the New Jersey arm of Clean Water Action. “The more good things happen in the states the more quickly we can undo the damage when he is gone.’’

If the state is going to prevent a rollback in environmental protections, then the public must get involved, the activists said.

“We’re in big trouble, but opposition is building,’’ O’Malley said. “We are not going to roll over to the Trump agenda on any step on the way.’’