Lawmakers Embrace Goal Of A Fossil-fuel Free New Jersey By 2050

Business groups say bill approved by committee moves too fast, while advocates say concrete steps are needed to stem global warming

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
The state yesterday took a first, if only tentative, step toward phasing out its reliance on fossil fuels — an action that nevertheless drew opposition from business lobbyists and flak from climate-change activists who argued it does not go far enough in dealing with the global-warming crisis.

In a spirited legislative hearing, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee unanimously approved a bill that requires all electricity in New Jersey by 2050 to come from carbon-free sources, presumably renewable energy and nuclear power.

The legislation (S-3681) essentially gives New Jersey three decades to wean itself off natural gas, a fuel that today supplies approximately 40 percent of the state’s electricity. Natural gas also heats about two-thirds of homes in New Jersey, and is critical as a raw material in manufacturing.

But just how the legislation would impact the dozen or so natural-gas pipelines and new natural gas-fired power plants that are seeking approval in New Jersey is uncertain. Gov. Phil Murphy is under pressure from a coalition of environmental organizations to declare a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects. Without it, those groups argue, the state can’t achieve the administration’s goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill, said it is structured to minimize any impact on the state’s economy.

“It’s a 31-year transition plan,’’ he said. “The point is to have an orderly transition so there is no economic disruption.’’

Criticism from both sides of the debate

Business lobbyists cautioned the state might be moving too fast on ruling out natural gas as an option as part of New Jersey’s future energy mix. But Smith countered the state is not taking enough affirmative action to deal with the climate crisis already.

“We can’t wait,’’ he responded when Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce called for a series of stakeholder meetings on the issue. “We’ve got to get out of the carbon business. We are past the time when we can quibble.’’

His bill would require the state Board of Public Utilities, in consultation with the Department of Environmental Protection, to adopt a carbon-emissions portfolio standard, calling for a gradual reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases as the state shifts to carbon-free forms of electricity generation.

Clean-energy advocates, however, urged lawmakers to establish specific benchmarks in the bill for phasing out fossil fuels. “We need to do more, faster based on the latest climate change science,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Tom Gilbert, campaign director for ReThink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, urged the state to begin phasing out fossil fuels now, including natural gas. He said the multitude of natural-gas projects pending in the state clearly conflict with the administration’s clean-energy goals.

By most accounts, there are up to 13 different gas pipeline and gas-fired power plants proposed in New Jersey, most of which have generated intense local opposition. One — a 23-mile pipeline under Raritan and New York bays to deliver gas to Long Island — suffered a setback Wednesday when New York denied a permit because of significant impacts on water quality.

But Raymond Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, called Smith’s bill premature, arguing the state should wait to see what a new Energy Master Plan recommends. A draft is expected out this summer and it is projected to be adopted by the end of the year.

Smith, however, said he hopes his bill would influence the direction of the master plan by focusing on efforts to end the use of fossil fuels.