Report: N.J. must act to protect the climate

With mounting threats from climate change, New Jersey needs to embrace tougher protections for the environment, cleaner energy options, and better planning, a report from the Fund for New Jersey says.

Its recommendations range from policies long debated by officials and lawmakers, such as ramping up the state's dependence on renewable energy as a source of electricity, to newer actions, like imposing a moratorium on all pending pipeline projects until a more comprehensive review determines whether they adversely impact efforts to curb global warming.

The state also needs to reverse years of rollbacks in protections governing its water supplies and drinking water, steps that have jeopardized water resources and put New Jersey in a worse position to meet its clean water needs, according to the report.

"We've been backsliding for years,'' said Ed Lloyd, a trustee for the fund and director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Columbia University School of Law, referring to the state's once-prominent leadership role on the environment.

Looking to the future, the report focuses on four key areas where action is needed: energy policy, with a call for more reliance on wind, solar, and other renewables; water supply and quality; state and regional planning; and environmental justice - not imposing new pollution burdens on people because of where they live.

The report, "Climate Change Adds Urgency to Restoring Environmental Protection," suggests time is running out for New Jersey. "The state's quality of life is on the line,'' it says.

Many of the recommendations deal with issues familiar to lawmakers, such as having New Jersey rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional coalition to fight greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

New Jersey joined the effort but Gov. Christie pulled the state out early in his first term, calling the initiative ineffective and a tax on ratepayers.

Since then, the governor has vetoed three separate bills aimed at having New Jersey rejoin RGGI, the most recent just last week. Proponents hope a new governor will reverse that decision.

The report focuses on reducing the state's reliance on fossil fuels, whether by reviving the state's moribund efforts to build an offshore wind industry, or mandating utilities to take more aggressive steps to help customers reduce energy use.

Clean-energy advocates have pushed for years for a law mandating steep reductions in energy use by consumers, but the legislation has never gotten close to being signed into law.

With New Jersey facing the prospect of a dozen or more new natural-gas pipelines being developed in the state, including in the Pinelands, the report calls for a moratorium on all pending projects to determine whether they are safe and needed.

The report notes that the state's increased reliance on natural gas for electricity has serious drawbacks, including increased emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

It also discusses the spate of new and existing pipelines crisscrossing the state, posing hazards to ecologically sensitive lands and habitat, in addition to the risks posed to the public by accidents and spills.

New Jersey also should expand its reliance on solar to be at least 15 percent of the state's energy mix, calling on the Board of Public Utilities to look to other states to see how to achieve the goal at a lower cost to residents and businesses.

Overall, it calls for 80 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewables by 2050, a target set by a bill kicked around by the Legislature for the past several years.

Protecting and preserving the state's water resources is essential, the report says. Without safe and abundant water, the state cannot overcome the impacts of climate change. It calls for stepped-up planning to know where water will come from and how to protect drinking-water supplies.

It criticizes recent changes in protections dealing with the state's waters, citing rollbacks in planning, rules allowing expanded septic tank deployments in the Highlands, and aging water infrastructure in need of huge investments. It also calls for adoption of new standards in drinking water for contaminants that are popping up in potable water supplies.

"Some of these recommendations are going to be costly,'' Lloyd said.

The report also emphasizes the need for better planning, including development of a climate-change plan for the Jersey Shore to deal with the consequences of rising sea levels.