Environmental groups press Murphy to reject regional anti-pollution pact. They say it’s not bold enough

Critics say Transportation & Climate Initiative would do little for communities already overburdened by pollution
Credit: David Lee on Unsplash
Environmental groups critical of the pact want state policymakers to focus the proposed initiative on mandatory pollution reductions in overburdened communities.

One of the most prominent environmental organizations in New Jersey is opposing a regional cap-and-trade program being pushed by Northeastern states to curb global-warming emissions from motor vehicles.

Clean Water Action joined the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance and Ironbound Community Corporation in urging the Murphy administration to reject joining the Transportation & Climate Initiative, a proposal most clean-energy advocates view as a critical step toward reducing the single largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Many environmentalists consider the still emerging climate initiative, modeled after the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a program that aims to reduce pollution from power plants — as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize and decarbonize the region’s transportation system.

Not so much though for those who represent environmental justice communities — already overburdened with the cumulative effects of pollution — which have shown a growing voice in the Murphy administration.

Need for ‘bold, visionary solutions’

“TCI to date has been tone deaf at best and racist at worst. The world is on fire and we need bold, visionary solutions that center those most directly impacted to build a just society,’’ said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director of the Ironbound Community Corporation.

Clean Water Action wants state policymakers to focus the proposed pact on mandatory pollution reductions in overburdened communities, targeted funding and action in those areas.

“We need big bold solutions that the environmental justice communities in New Jersey has been  demanding a long time like mandatory pollution reductions in communities of color and low-income communities,’’ said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director of Clean Water Action.

Their concerns include the possibility that a cap-and-trading program is likely to disproportionately impact environmental justice communities and that monies raised by the program would be diverted for other purposes, as has occurred in the past, when more than $ 1 billion in clean-energy funds have been diverted by past administrations in New Jersey.

The Transportation & Climate Initiative envisions funding the programs through a proposal that could boost the price of gasoline at the pump by as much as 5 cents to 17 cents a gallon, according to estimates by the alliance. The alliance is comprised of 12 states, including New Jersey as well as Washington D.C. If implemented, the program could slash tailpipe emissions by 25% over the next decade.

Even backers of the initiative have concerns

But even backers of the initiative have urged that concerns raised by environmental justice communities be addressed. In a letter submitted this summer by nearly a dozen organizations, they urged the initiative to focus on many of those concerns, including mandating significant reductions in emissions in overburdened communities, as well as preventing raids on Transportation & Climate Initiative funds by individual states.

Those concerns have been raised in other states by the Climate Justice Alliance, a nationwide group that also opposes the initiative, according to Lopez-Nuñez.

For instance, public transport should be prioritized, according to those groups, rather than the installation of charging stations for single-use vehicles, many of which cannot be afforded by residents of those communities.

The issue is likely to become a source of huge debate in coming months as states decide whether to join the initiative — a question likely to be controversial in New Jersey given there will be a gubernatorial election next November.

The transportation sector accounts for more than 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions in New Jersey. State policymakers argue electrifying the sector is crucial to achieving the state’s goal of reducing global warming pollution by 80% below 2006 levels by mid-century.

But Goldsmith said the specific plan on the table isn’t good enough and her organization sees no pathway to make it good enough. “That’s why we’re urging fellow advocates and Gov. (Phil) Murphy to say no to TCI in New Jersey.’’

In September, the Ironbound Community Corporation and New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy urging him to not join the Transportation & Climate Initiative, in part because the higher fuel prices that would result represent a regressive tax on low- and moderate-income households.