For many years, the environment enjoyed broad bipartisan support among the public and those elected to shape policies. Yet, amid a worsening climate crisis, that support appears to be wavering in New Jersey.
In this fall’s election, with all 120 of the state’s legislative seats on the ballot, there is mounting speculation whether the Murphy administration’s aggressive push to clean energy could be a significant factor in a handful of closely contested districts. And not in a positive way.
“It is the first time I can recall, in my memory, the environment has been shown to be a negative in legislative elections,’’ said Jeff Tittel, a longtime environmentalist and native of New Jersey.
Whether this trend is enough to end the Democrats’ long control of the Legislature remains to be seen, but as policies to implement the shift to green energy move closer to reality, they have triggered a surprising pushback not only from residents but also from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The opposition centers on some of the key initiatives identified as the focus of the state’s clean-energy goals: offshore wind farms off the coast; phasing out the natural gas used to heat homes; and finally, a proposal to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in New Jersey beginning in 2035.
“It is too much, too fast and no one has put a price tag on what it is all going to cost,’’ said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris), who added “many folks see Gov. Murphy’s Energy Master Plan as extreme.’’
But clean-energy advocates dispute support for the environment is fading, insisting climate action remains strong despite a well-funded campaign by the fossil fuel industry.
“The environment has become more partisan,’’ acknowledged Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Whether it is electric vehicles or offshore wind, there is always a push from the right to muck up the issues,’’ he said. “Bringing change is hard. This is not going to happen overnight.’’
Murphy’s signature bid to make New Jersey the hub of the emerging offshore wind industry is among the issues Bucco cites. He is among lawmakers who have called for a moratorium on offshore wind development, criticizing a bill approved by lawmakers in June that gave lucrative tax credits to the company building the state’s first offshore wind farm.
Democratic legislative leaders urged state officials to hold off on offshore wind projects until ‘unanswered questions’ about the cost are resolved.
Even the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, expressed concern. In a joint letter, the legislative leaders urged state officials to hold off on offshore wind projects until “unanswered questions’’ about the cost of the initiative are resolved.
With offshore wind facing unforeseen financial challenges brought on by supply chain constraints, rising borrowing costs and inflation, developers are pressing state and federal officials to increase prices they will charge consumers for the power they had contracted to deliver. New York state officials last week rejected a petition seeking higher payments, leaving the future of the projects uncertain.
To achieve steep reductions in global warming pollution, New Jersey and other states plan to electrify both the transportation and building sectors, a step that would curb emissions from the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the chief criticisms of those policies is the general consensus the existing power grid is not capable of delivering that much electricity to consumers. To meet that increase in demand, the grid will need to be modernized and upgraded, according to experts.
‘It is one thing to be for the environment, but it is another to take a draconian and unworkable system and mandate it for everyone.’ — Ray Cantor, New Jersey Business & Industry Association
“The numbers are big,’’ said former Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, speaking at an energy conference earlier this month sponsored by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Martin, managing director of Christie 55 Solutions, the consulting firm founded by former Gov. Chris Christie, projected the costs at trillions of dollars nationwide. “We need to recognize that cost,’’ he said.
A coalition of some of the state’s most prominent business groups, including NJBIA, is pressing the state to drop plans to ban gasoline-powered cars, beginning in 2035.
“I don’t see it as a partisan issue,’’ argued Ray Cantor, deputy chief government affairs officer for NJBIA. “This is an issue that the Legislature needs to address. It is one thing to be for the environment, but it is another to take a draconian and unworkable system and mandate it for everyone.’’
Others insisted the public has grown weary of the rising examples of climate havoc, including the poor air quality from Canadian wildfires, a spate of the three hottest years on record and multiple tornadoes occurring in New Jersey, according to Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
“Overall, voters are seeing we can’t afford to go back,’’ Potosnak said, adding he is confident New Jersey will continue with its clean-energy agenda. Nevertheless, the group is planning to invest a record $400,000 in this fall’s elections.
Tom Johnson covers energy and environmental issues for NJ Spotlight News. A co-founder of NJ Spotlight a decade ago, Johnson previously worked at the Star-Ledger for close to three decades.
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