Not on the same page

Environmentalists and businesses are unhappy with the state’s climate change goals

Daniel J. Munoz//January 31, 2022

Not on the same page

Environmentalists and businesses are unhappy with the state’s climate change goals

Daniel J. Munoz//January 31, 2022

Gov. Phil Phil Murphy and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh participate in a groundbreaking for the New Jersey Wind Port on Sept. 9, 2021. EDWIN J. TORRES/NJ GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a 290-page Energy Master Plan in 2019 with the intention of mitigating climate change while promoting economic growth over the next three decades. Murphy and top environmental and economic officials described what would result as a clean energy economy. “[F]ighting climate change and creating good-paying union jobs aren’t at odds with each other. In fact, they go hand in hand,” the governor said during an event on Jan. 12, where he, New York state and the White House unveiled a series of new offshore wind energy projects.

The state’s plan sets benchmarks such as producing 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind and the statewide adoption of solar energy and electric cars, buses and trucks. The goal is for the state to be weaned entirely off fossil fuels by 2050.

But business groups and the fossil fuel industry that would be affected by such a shift are trying to slow down the efforts, arguing that failing to do so could mean skyrocketing costs, as well as dependence on unreliable technology and myriad of unintended consequences.

Environmental groups, largely supportive of the clean energy transition, contend that Murphy and his top officials are not moving fast enough, and that the stakes are high as humanity faces an existential threat.

A suit filed Jan. 20 by 120 environmental and social justice groups alleges that Murphy administration officials are not following their boss’ orders on slashing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and restricting new fossil fuel projects. Organized under the banner EmpowerNJ, the groups claim that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is refusing to proceed with rulemaking tied to cutting emissions.

Murphy signed an order last November speeding up the emissions goals and reducing them by 50% two decades ahead of schedule in 2030. But the NJDEP hasn’t set milestones to reach that goal or the goals of the Global Warming Response Act, a 2019 state law that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Over the summer, the groups filed a petition with the state agency to adopt guidelines to reach the goal but said that request was rejected. NJDEP officials and the New Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

“The [NJDEP] ignored the governor, they ignored the science, and they ignored the law,” former New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said in an interview. “It’s just more hot air,” he said of Murphy’s rhetoric.

“They’re approving more pipelines and other bad stuff,” Tittel added. According to the petition, such projects have no place in the 2030 greenhouse gas targets.

NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, at an October summit hosted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, told attendees that natural gas can provide a transition from the current fossil fuel dynamic to the governor’s clean energy goals, something opposed by environmental groups.

“Nobody is flipping off the switch on natural gas tomorrow,” LaTourette said. “We need carbon-based fuels in order to power our economy.”

Meanwhile, another suit filed in January is seeking to slow down the offshore wind goals of the Biden and Murphy administrations. The Biden administration plans to lease 480,000 acres off the coasts of New York and New Jersey for wind development.

The plaintiff, Save Long Beach Island, argues that the plans have not properly factored the effect that the projects could have on the state’s commercial fishing and tourism industries, as well as the state’s fragile marine ecosystem. Save LBI President Bob Stern said that the intention of the suit “is not to block everything” but rather, slow down a process where “a lot of the impacts haven’t fully been assessed.”

In the suit, Save LBI alleges that the offshore wind projects – Ocean Wind 1 and 2 – threaten the 18-mile barrier island’s “unobstructed seascape,” while its “members who own or patronize businesses” could be “adversely affected by the environmental degradation” they say could be brought about by the projects.

The U.S Department of the Interior, which is one of the defendants, declined to comment, but a spokesperson said the Biden administration is still moving ahead as planned. Murphy’s office also declined to comment.

“We take it very seriously,” Murphy said on Jan. 12, of the Jersey Shore region’s sentiments. “We think the concerns are manageable.”

The Garden State’s offshore wind aspirations bogged down during the Trump years, according to Murphy. Stern acknowledged the “possibility” that the same could happen again should the slow-walking continue several years into a Republican presidential administration.

“If that’s the Republican position … not to pursue this, and if the voters vote for that, that’s democracy,” he maintained.

Elsewhere, a public relations campaign is being waged to prevent the state from requiring homes and businesses to switch to electric heating. Murphy’s energy master plan estimates that oil and gas heating accounts for as much as 28% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The state suggests that the costs of installation would be between $4,000 and $7,000. But according to a study commissioned by the Fuel Merchants Association, the costs would be much closer to a range of $12,000 to $22,000. The group also questions the effectiveness of the technology.

Lawmakers are reintroducing a bill that would prohibit the state from requiring homes and businesses to switch from oil and natural gas to electric heat. Environmentalists criticized the measure as catering to these industries at the expense of the state’s well-being.

“I’ve got people in my district who will be out of a job” should such a mandate be adopted, said one of the main sponsors, state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District. “Our goal is to bring the Legislature into the process and bring the public into the process.”