Rejoining RGGI Would Send Message to Next Governor, New President

Tom Johnson | March 21, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Regional effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions could be critical, some lawmakers say, if Trump rolls back initiative to reduce power plant pollution

power plant
With a new administration in Washington pulling back on climate-change initiatives, lawmakers are reviving an effort to rejoin a multistate initiative to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee yesterday approved a bill that would have New Jersey rejoin a regional program to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, a venture Gov. Chris Christie pulled out of early in his first term.

Not even its proponents believe the governor will sign the bill if passed, but they argue it is important to make clear the state’s intentions once a new executive takes office.

“The timing couldn’t be more important,’’ Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey told the committee, citing reports that the Trump administration could dismantle a plan to reduce power plant emissions adopted by former President Barack Obama as early as this week.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed, saying the best way to implement that effort, dubbed the Clean Power Plan, is by joining the multistate effort known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. “It’s important to send a message,’’ he said.

The program has become a political football in New Jersey since Christie pulled the state out of it, calling the initiative a tax on utility customers and ineffective in its goals.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor and chairman of the committee, disagreed, citing reports from a consultant that claimed it’s boosted economic activity in the region, lowered customers’ bills, and returned more than $113 million to New Jersey.

“It’s a great program. I think we should never have left it,’’ said Smith, a course his latest bill would prevent. “If we are in, we’re in; we can’t pull out afterwards.’’

After Christie pulled out, the Legislature tried to get New Jersey back in, but the executive branch ignored those efforts. The matter also was litigated in the courts, with the Christie administration losing on procedural grounds, which it later corrected by adopting a formal withdrawal through a rule-making process.

The move to rejoin the regional initiative was opposed by business lobbyists yesterday, who said the state is doing a fine job reducing emissions contributing to climate change.

“We have the lowest emissions in PJM (the regional power grid stretching from the Eastern Seaboard to Illinois) from our power plants,’’ said Sara Bluhm, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. She expressed concerns that rejoining the multi-state program would increase electricity bills.

The power sector is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind the transportation sector, in New Jersey. The state gets nearly half of its electricity from nuclear power, which does not produce pollution contributing to global warming.

Nonetheless, a plan put together by the state Department of Environmental Protection to achieve an 80 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2050 identified RGGI as one of the three main components to realize that goal. The others include a program to encourage low- and zero-emission vehicle adoption in New Jersey, and steps outlined in the state’s Energy Master Plan.

The vehicle-emission program, which has been adopted in California and nine other Northeast states, is reportedly also targeted for elimination by the new administration in Washington.