On Jan. 16, New Jersey’s 56th governor, Phil Murphy, will take the reins of state government from an outgoing administration that placed a low priority on the environment for the past eight years.
Governor-elect Murphy has pledged to restore New Jersey to its former role as a national environmental leader, a timely and much-needed change. As the past year in Washington has shown, New Jersey cannot rely on the federal government to protect our air, water and land.
The new governor has a lot of work ahead, including economic and fiscal challenges. But since a clean and healthy environment is essential to a strong economy, bolstering our environmental protections is of utmost importance.
Strong, bold actions – especially in the areas of energy, climate change resilience and public lands management – are critical to ensuring a healthy environment.
Here are a few suggestions for immediate action by our incoming governor:
A new energy master plan
Governor-elect Murphy should launch an initiative for a new state energy master plan with a goal of moving New Jersey to 100 percent clean energy. This should include measures to ramp up energy efficiency to at least 2 percent annually, taking steps to develop offshore wind energy in appropriate locations, promoting the continued growth of solar energy, and better evaluating the need for proposed pipelines and their consistency with the state’s long-term clean energy goals.
The new governor should also rejoin New Jersey to the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative, something he has pledged to do.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI for short, is a program aimed at reducing heat-trapping gases and spurring investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. New Jersey was one of the original northeastern states that established RGGI in 2005, but the outgoing governor withdrew the state from the program during his first term.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, RGGI has helped significantly cut air pollution in the region, which currently includes nine states. The program also boosted regional economic growth; created health benefits worth $10 billion; and saved consumers at least $618 million on energy, with more savings expected in the future. Rejoining RGGI will allow New Jersey to share in these benefits, and ensure that this state we’re in does its part to fight climate change.
Planning for coastal resiliency
As a coastal state, New Jersey is already impacted by sea level rise and more extreme storms. New approaches to development along the coast and waterways must be considered.
It’s been five years since Superstorm Sandy devastated our Atlantic and Delaware Bay coastal communities. Most of the damaged buildings have been repaired or rebuilt, but our shorelines remain at risk from rising seas and more intense storms. Now is the time to improve the resiliency of our communities and protect our state’s $22 billion annual tourism industry.
Decades ago, former Gov. Thomas Kean suggested a regional commission to oversee land use planning along New Jersey’s coast, similar to the regional planning bodies that manage the Pinelands and the Highlands. New Jersey faces many tough decisions – for example, how do we plan for an orderly retreat from the most flood-prone areas, and how can new development be sited and built to withstand future storms and sea level rise? Our new governor should launch a coastal resiliency planning initiative so we are prepared.
Stewarding public lands
New Jersey lacks a comprehensive vision and planning process for the stewardship of our public lands. It is important to identify and designate ecologically sensitive areas and mature forests as natural areas and make sure that forest stewardship activities avoid these sensitive areas.
The new governor should adopt the Endangered and Nongame Species Advisory Committee’s recommendations so that several of our state’s natives are not lost.
Over the past eight years, the committee has submitted requests for the protection of these declining species. But the requests have languished. Some of our rarest and most important wildlife species have declined to near extinction, and swift action by the new governor is needed to safeguard their survival.
Protecting and expanding urban parks
This is a perfect time to renew the state’s focus and investment in urban parks. Top goals should be protecting and defending Liberty State Park in Jersey City and increasing state investments in parks in the greater Camden area.
The governor-elect has already spoken out against an eleventh-hour plan by the outgoing administration to lease the south end of Liberty State Park for a private yacht marina. Liberty State Park is truly a people’s park – similar in nature to Manhattan’s Central Park – and the new governor should make sure this precious public land along the Hudson River waterfront remains free and open.
While investments in parks and open spaces have already begun to reshape communities in Camden, the time is ripe to pull together several existing parks in Camden to create one new state park.
The new state park should include Petty’s Island in the Delaware River, which is being donated to the state Natural Lands Trust, and 62 acres of the old Harrison Avenue landfill in Camden, to be restored by the state and converted into a waterfront park.
A number of other parks, including Gateway Park along the Cooper River, Cramer Hill Nature Preserve and Pyne Poynt, could be incorporated into the new state park. All would be connected by the Circuit Trails, an ever-growing regional network of pedestrian and bicycle trails.
New Jersey is entering a new era with enormous possibilities. Let’s urge Governor-elect Murphy to move forward with a bold and inspiring agenda that will protect our environment and public health, and restore our state’s national leadership role.