By SARAH WATSON
President Obama’s sweeping federal policy announcements Tuesday for how the country will address climate change has cast attention on how New Jersey is handling the issues.
Among the efforts Obama announced is setting limits for the first time on how much carbon power plants can release, upgrading the nation’s electric grid, doubling the amount of energy produced by alternative-energy sources by 2020 and requiring all projects built with federal money to meet standards to withstand sea-level rise and extreme weather.
Some of these concepts already are in place in New Jersey, and the state intends to use its efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy as a “working model” for how to fortify the coast and prepare towns for sea-level rise and severe storms, said Larry Ragonese, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman.
Obama’s announcement also noted that the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which includes federal, state and local experts and officials, is scheduled to release a report in August detailing how rebuilding should occur and using those recommendations to establish national policies and goals.
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, Ragonese said, the state has met its 2020 target through programs reducing coal energy and diesel-fuel pollution. The Christie Administration also has advocated advancing clean-energy programs along with economic development within the alternative-energy sectors, such as solar and offshore wind development.
At the same time, critics contend, Christie’s policies and decisions have reduced the state’s focus on curbing carbon emissions and, until Sandy struck in October, shelved efforts to adapt to climate change.
In 2005, then Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed an executive order setting in place the first statewide effort at reducing carbon emissions. Several years later, the Legislature passed the Global Warming Response Act that required the DEP to study where carbon pollution was coming from and to develop a plan to lower emissions. The legislation created the Office of Climate and Energy within the DEP.
About the same time, New Jersey was part of a group of 10 northeastern states that developed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which set up a regional level cap-and-trade program for power plants. The plants were given financial incentives to reduce carbon pollution, said Doug O’Malley, interim director of Environment New Jersey.
When Christie took office in 2010, he dismantled the Office of Climate and Energy as part of a broader shrinking of state government. The Christie Administration shifted work and funding on reducing carbon emissions to economic growth in alternative energy.
Christie ordered the state to pull out from the regional cap-and-trade program in May 2011, saying residents and business owners could not afford to pay the additional costs, and the program was not working as expected. Christie said the state could meet reduction targets through other means.
By pulling out from program, New Jersey lost out on millions of dollars annually that was to be spent on developing additional clean energy in the state as well as restoring certain habitats, including salt marshes, which absorb carbon and act as storm buffers, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.
“I think that’s a real loss to the state, because I think our experience with Sandy has shown us that natural areas could help mitigate the impacts of storms to communities,” Dillingham said.
Environment New Jersey and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Christie administration for what they said was illegally pulling out of the program. O’Malley said he hopes the case will have a court date this fall.
Under the Christie Administration, certain types of renewable energy grew significantly, especially the solar industry. New Jersey ranks second in the nation, just behind California.
However, the policy groundwork that allowed the region’s and the state’s solar growth was put in place during the Corzine administration, said Rick Dovey, director of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and a strong advocate for growing the alternative-energy sector in South Jersey.
Ragonese said that even though the state withdrew from the regional plan, Christie directed the DEP to continue reducing coal-fired power plant pollution and to continue programs to retrofit heavy polluting vehicles, such as garbage trucks and school buses, to cleaner burning engines.
“These are the kinds of things we would do under RGGI, and we are doing them anyway,” Ragonese said.
New Jersey never has mandated developing a plan for how the state should adapt to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. Other states, including New York and Delaware have.
Earlier this month, New York City unveiled a $20 billion plan to protect the city from sea-level rise, major storms and other expected effects.
A Rutgers University poll released in May found that nearly 75 percent of New Jerseyans are concerned about climate change, but few are willing to pay for the costs of preparing for the effects.
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