Worried that New Jersey's access to natural gas supplies could be jeopardized by lobbying from environmentalists opposed to increased use of fossil fuels, a band of big business groups have organized a coalition to promote the use of the fuel.
Called Natural Gas for New Jersey, the coalition already secured a win when Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill last month that would have imposed a ban on a controversial method of drilling for natural gas in New Jersey, a step they argued would allow the state to tap plentiful and relatively cheap supplies of the fuel in the region.
More importantly, the creation of the coalition gives the Christie administration powerful backing in its plans to rely more on natural gas to meet New Jersey's energy needs and to try and drive down steep electricity bills for both residents and businesses. The fuel is frequently mentioned in the draft Energy Master Plan (EMP) released by the administration in June, a blueprint for the future that has been heavily criticized by clean energy advocates and key Democratic lawmakers.
Among other things, the plan calls for an expansion of the state’s system of natural gas pipelines to more readily access supplies of the fuel being tapped by neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, where plentiful reservoirs of natural gas have been found in formations of the Marcellus Shale.
"New or expanded pipelines will confer energy price benefits by increasing the supply of lower-cost gas from the Marcellus Shale, thus reducing the wholesale cost of gas and power" for electric power suppliers and electric utilities, the plan said. In addition, the administration has approved funding to build three new natural gas-fired power plants with ratepayer subsidies, a step it argues will lower wholesale electricity prices.
In setting up the natural gas coalition, its organizers argued they sought to create a vehicle to get its message out to a broader audience.
"We need cheaper electricity," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, one of the members of the coalition. "Gas, hopefully, will be abundant and a significantly cheaper source of producing power for some time to come. Once people understand it is close by and it will significantly lower electric bills, we think people will like that message, especially with the other side saying no to everything except solar and wind," Bozarth said.
According to the coalition, more than 25,000 jobs and $4.4 billion in the state economy stemmed from the natural gas industry in 2008 alone. On a national level, those benefits total $385 billion and 2.8 million jobs annually. Besides the chemistry council, other members of the coalition include some of the biggest business-lobbying groups in Trenton, including the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Petroleum Council and the New Jersey Society for Environmental, Economic Development.
Those benefits, critics say, fail to account for the drawbacks to increase use of fossil fuels and their contribution to global climate change.
"It’s unfortunate; it’s a very narrow view," said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, which has criticized the emphasis on natural gas in the revised energy plan. "It means more fossil fuels for New Jersey and it means we are almost endorsing the practice of fracking. What are the impacts on the environment and human health?" he asked.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process by which developers extract natural gas from wells deep in the Marcellus Shale. It is a technology that involves injection of massive amounts of water, sand and toxic chemicals to recover natural gas from deep rock formations. Critics say the practice could pose a health risk to the drinking water supplies of 5 million New Jerseyans.
Beyond the threat to drinking water supplies, some environmental groups oppose the expansion of natural gas pipelines in the state, primarily because several proposed projects cross the New Jersey Highlands, where protections have been put in place to protect other water supplies.
Still, natural gas proponents, such as Bozarth, argue the enormous economic benefits of lowering energy bills in a depressed economy far outweigh any disadvantages. "Even Democrats in the legislature, who passed the fracking ban, understand the benefits of cheap natural gas," he said.