Gov. Chris Christie recently walked New Jersey’s beaches to draw attention to the state’s tourism industry, but his visits to the coast also put a focus on his environmental record.
Christie has championed the environment in some ways, winning praise for efforts to protect ocean and water quality and to preserve open space. But he also has been criticized on issues concerning greenhouse gases, renewable energy, and beach access.
Environmentalists were unhappy with his vetoing of two bills Friday that would have kept New Jersey in a regional greenhouse gas reduction initiative and would have allowed creation of local stormwater utilities that could have imposed fees in Ocean County. Assemblyman Jack McKeon, D-Essex, is seeking a legislative vote to override the greenhouse gas bill veto.
“He has been active,” said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group. “Like everything else with this governor, when he decides to get involved with something, he takes a position.”
During the week of Aug. 7, Christie visited several beach towns, including Ocean City and Atlantic City, to promote the shore and his record of protecting it. That prompted Assembly Environment Committee Chairman McKeon, D-Essex, to criticize Christie for vetoing legislation to control Barnegat Bay pollution by allowing Ocean County municipalities to tax developers and by setting pollution discharge standards.
But Barnegat Bay also was the focus of one of the governor’s key environmental victories. He signed into law three bills aimed at reversing the bay’s deterioration, including restrictions on use of fertilizer that gets washed into the water. Other new laws require soil to be restored after road projects are built and to help repair ineffective stormwater basins.
“I think he really moved the state forward in addressing pollution problems in Barnegat Bay, where the state had turned a blind eye for many years,” Dillingham said.
Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, agreed the Barnegat Bay laws Christie signed are important, although he said they were advanced by Democrats. Still, he gave Christie credit for appropriating money to preserve open space.
Environmentalists have opposed his administration’s proposed reworking of the state’s energy master plan, charging that it retrenches New Jersey’s commitment to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.
Previously, the plan had set a goal of having renewable energy account for 30 percent of the state’s energy usage by 2021. Christie has said a more realistic goal is 22.5 percent.
“When the governor ran for election, he promoted himself as a champion of clean energy,” said Christie Guhl, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Since then, we’ve seen a lot of setbacks.”
She noted that Christie also pulled New Jersey out of a 10-state plan aimed at capping greenhouse gas emissions. The program required power producers to buy credits if gas emissions exceeded certain levels.
Christie said the cap-and-trade agreement, which was vehemently opposed by conservatives, taxed businesses without improving emission levels.
Administration officials defended Christie’s record on renewable energy. The governor has been an advocate of offshore wind projects. He signed a law providing tax breaks to companies developing offshore wind farms and has worked with federal officials and other states to encourage wind energy.
More than 10,000 solar energy projects have been installed statewide, the Governor’s Office says.
Many environmentalists have criticized the Department of Environmental Protection under Christie for proposing to allow individual beach towns to develop rules concerning public access to the beach. Dillingham said tourist towns promote use of their beaches, but more affluent residential shore towns discourage access to beaches.
By not having uniform rules statewide, the DEP is allowing certain towns to keep out poorer residents, he said.
“The coast is a public trust. There shouldn’t be certain beaches for the haves and certain beaches for the have-nots,” Dillingham said.
Michele Byers, director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, charged that Christie does not appear to understand that parts of the ecosystem depend on each other, and that the state’s economy and quality of life depend on the environment.
She said Christie has not shown support for regional planning and has allowed sewer extensions and development in sensitive areas, noting that protecting water quality requires vigilance at local planning levels.
Byers and others said the DEP is considering changes to the way it adopts environmental rules, and they worry the changes would undercut protections in place to foster economic development.
“New Jersey worked hard to get regional planning in place. To see a governor risk that work, I think, outweighs the good he has done,” Byers said.
However, even his critics agree they like parts of Christie’s record. And his supporters say he deserves more credit than he gets.
“I would give him an A for being a progressive leader, a thoughtful environmentalist,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, Mercer.
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