New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's Nuclear Plan To Ruin New Jersey

During the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race, Chris Christie positioned himself as an outlier in a Republican Party where climate denial and fossil fuel dependence have become the vigorously enforced norm. “I am going to make renewable energy the key part of the Christie administration,” he promised. “I will be the state’s number one clean energy advocate.” Christie’s credentials were so convincing he received the endorsement of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, one of the state’s major green groups.

Wednesday’s hearing at the Statehouse Annex, in Trenton, illuminates how completely the governor reneged on his campaign promises. This will be the second of three hearings on the latest update to New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan (EMP). In 2008, then-governor Jon Corzine (D)—who Christie named a “phony” on environmental issues—issued an EMP update requiring that 30 percent of the state’s energy be generated from renewables by 2021. Christie’s revision ratchets the commitment down by 22.5 percent. He claims the more ambitious target is unachievable, although by 2020 California and Colorado are on track to meet goals similar to Corzine’s plan.

“This is a total about-face and a broken promise to the people of New Jersey,” says Matt Elliott of Environment New Jersey. “Unfortunately, the list goes on and on when it comes to this governor.” New Jersey’s environmental groups are struggling to contain the damage, immediately through pushback at the EMP hearings and with coalition building and media pressure for the long game.

In Christie’s 2011 draft of the Energy Master Plan [PDF], most of New Jersey’s solar capacity sprang up in the last three years under the aegis of “state subsidy” programs. Christie recommends abruptly ending them. “The Christie administration does not support the unreasonable transference of wealth from ratepayers….to solar developers,” the EMP plan reads. But solar energy is cheaper than natural gas, which will be heavily subsidized by the plan, and will soon be vastly cheaper than nuclear energy. (Christie has hinted that he may now support a new nuclear plant for the state, a $10 billion endeavor.) Solar energy installations can be built very quickly, and feature no negative externalities once they are in operation, something few other energy sources can claim.

State environmental groups have made common cause with the fledgling solar energy industry to combat Christie’s plan. Both groups are relying on a strong presence at the hearings to air their grievances, along with a media campaign to maintain pressure on the governor. Their success is by no means guaranteed, but Christie seems to feel the pinch as evidenced by a press release last week, clearly meant to fortify his environmental bona fides.

“Governor Christie’s Continued Commitment to Renewable Energy,” the presser reads, making no mention of Christie’s efforts to reduce those same renewable energy commitments. “They are certainly feeling pressure to spin what they are doing in a way that is seen as supportive of renewable energy,” says Mark Kresowik, regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

But the first hearing, which was held last Tuesday in Newark, did not allow the environmental groups much room to maneuver. With roughly 200 people in attendance, commentators ranged from natural gas industry representatives to interested citizens. But industry representatives were allowed to speak first and longest.

“It was a clear attempt to front-load the hearing with people who were supporters,” says Christine Guhl of the Sierra Club. “They were allowed to speak first and were given a much longer time. Most people who came from the public had to wait five hours to speak and then were limited in their comments because time was running out.”

Christie isn’t content with undermining New Jersey’s environmental policy. Earlier this year he announced the state’s exit from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a carbon pricing cap-and-trade system, covering every state from Maryland to Maine (except Pennsylvania). RGGI puts a price on carbon pollution by auctioning limited numbers of carbon pollution allowances. Companies purchase enough allowances to cover their pollutant output, but the total number will be lowered as the program continues. The lowered cap will make pollution allowances more expensive, incentivizing companies to cut carbon emissions. The funds from RGGI auctions are earmarked towards energy efficiency and clean energy projects in the member states.

But Christie denounced the program as an expensive boondoggle. “RGGI has not changed behavior and it does not reduce emissions,” he declared. “RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses with no discernible and measurable impact on our environment.” Cap-and-trade is anathema to the national Republican Party, despite the fact that is was originally proposed by conservatives. For its part, the Koch brother-funded Americans for Prosperity celebrated Christie’s withdrawal from RGGI as the downfall of a “job-destroying” policy that driv[es] up electricity rates.”

But RGGI works. Multiple studies have shown that the system creates jobs, saves energy and reduces carbon emissions. Funds raised by the auctions provide seed money for green energy programs across the region. Hundreds of business groups have signed a letter in support of the policy. In New Jersey, RGGI pumped $29.6 million into “12 large-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in the commercial and industrial sectors.” (RGGI actually generated well over $100 million for New Jersey, but Christie seized a significant chunk of the fund to address the state’s deficit.)

For all these reasons, the clean energy industry and environmental groups have closed ranks to defend the program. Ten thousand signatures were quickly found for a petition against New Jersey’s exit from RGGI, a surprisingly large number given the wonky complexities of the policy. Democrats in the state assembly and senate were quick to pass legislation requiring continued participation.

“It’s rare that you see that kind of outcry that quickly from that many people,” Elliot says. “We’re working in coalition with fifty groups across the state: Religious leaders, business leaders, civic groups, [organizations] you wouldn’t expect to be rallying around something like RGGI. The issue struck a chord [when we] realized that the governor is ignoring the will of the people and just doing his own thing.”

Environmental groups hope the governor’s sagging poll numbers will provide a good backdrop for citizen and activist pressure on the legislature’s Democratic majorities. The Democratic bill to save RGGI hasn’t been vetoed yet (although Christie probably will kill it) and the new Energy Master Plan still has two hearings to get through. “Christie overreached, he’s gone too far,” Kresowik says. “New Jersey citizens are going to make that clear to him at these Energy Master Plan public hearings."


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