After Gov. Chris Christie backed out of a successful regional carbon emissions trading program in 2011 and has vetoed any attempt to rejoin, New Jersey state senators have decided to let the voters dictate whether the state should participate.
“It’s the crisis of the century and we’re just not addressing it worldwide,” said state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex). “New Jersey needs to do its part.”
The Senate’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee voted four to one on Thursday to approve a resolution that would circumvent the governor and allow voters to write the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) into the constitution. State legislators have tried to address the issue through legislation, as The Star Ledger notes: “Twice before — in 2011 and 2012 — the Legislature attempted to reverse Christie’s decision, only to see Christie veto their bills.”
RGGI is a cap-and-trade program involving nine states in the Northeast. A cap is set on the amount of carbon pollution that can be emitted by power plants in the region. Plants then buy ‘allowances’ allowing them to emit carbon dioxide and the states auction these allowances. RGGI is a modest program — initially designed to reduce carbon emissions in the utility sector 10 percent by 2018.
Christie’s decision to withdraw from RGGI, claiming it was “not working,” was met with shock. As Stephen Lacey wrote here on Climate Progress, “the program had raised tens of millions of dollars for clean energy projects without noticeably raising rates. But after acknowledging that climate change was real and then raiding $65 million from the program in order to close a budget gap, Christie actually had the gall to say the program was ‘gimmicky.'”
But Christie’s decision may have had less to do with the program and more to do with the ultra-conservative, anti-clean energy Koch brothers. A tape of a secret meeting between Christie and pertrochemical billionaire David Koch shortly before Christie’s decision revealed the two had discussed the governor’s priorities at length, after which Koch concluded, “He is my kind of guy.”
Koch praised Christie’s decision as an example of his “commitment to the free enterprise system.”
An analysis of the first three years of RGGI released last year found the program was already producing significant results, cutting average annual CO2 emissions levels by 23 percent. The cuts can’t be attributed entirely to RGGI — the decline in coal generation, a switch to natural gas, and the economic downturn all played a role — but the program certainly helped.
Another 2012 study found that the economic benefits of the program were equally positive, adding $1.6 billion in value to the economies of participating states, setting up ratepayers for more than $1.1 billion in savings through improved efficiency and development of renewable energy, and creating 16,000 jobs in the first three years of the program alone.
While New Jersey grapples with its participation, RGGI states are in the process of tightening the restrictions on carbon pollution, seeking to cut up to 90 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution from power plants across nine New England and mid-Atlantic states during the next six years. The cap on carbon emissions will be lowered in 2014, with more cuts to come after that. In Massachusetts alone, the lower cap is expected to generate about $350 million in additional revenue by 2020.
In their quest to let New Jersey voters decide whether the state should participate in the carbon emissions trading program, the state’s senators face an uphill battle. According to The Star-Ledger, in order to get the question on the ballot in November 2014, the state Senate and Assembly would need to pass the resolution either once with a three-fifths majority, or twice with simple majorities — once this year and again next year. And “Tom Hester, Jr., a spokesman for the Democrats who control the Assembly, said there are currently no plans to consider the amendment.”