By Anthony Figliola
New Jersey Gov. Christie has come under intense criticism for his agnosticism on climate change. However, it's important to note that he is a national leader on other environmental causes.
In 2009, leading environmental groups in New Jersey backed Christie over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. The New Jersey Environmental Federation noted that "Christie has laid out by far the most impressive green agenda," and that "he consistently expressed a strong commitment to the environment."
New Jersey has been leading most of the nation in solar installations for years and, in 2010, the state's solar tax-credit program was so popular it ran out of money on the first day. The state just passed the one-gigawatt benchmark for installed energy, enough to power 139,000 homes in the state. In layman's terms, this is a major milestone that further diversifies the state's energy portfolio.
New Jersey now ranks only behind the sun-soaked states of California and Arizona in terms of solar capacity. Florida, the home of two potential GOP presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, doesn't even crack the top 10 in solar capacity, despite having the third-highest potential in the country for rooftop photovoltaics and being called the "Sunshine State."
And while Christie has become a champion of solar, he is honest about meeting benchmarks.
In 2011, the governor took significant criticism from the environmental lobby when he revised the state's energy master plan for renewable energy. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities had originally sought to obtain 30 percent of the state's electricity from renewables by 2021. Christie brought the number back to reality by slicing those projections to 22.5 percent, with a 4.1 percent carve-out for solar power by 2028 - a much more achievable goal.
Christie is acutely aware, especially in the aftermath of Sandy, that the Jersey Shore is an economic engine and the state's long-term success is dependent upon it. The region generates more than half of the state's $40 billion annual tourism economy.
The governor won over environmentalists when he opposed three offshore liquid natural gas terminals that would have been in New Jersey waters. What's the sense in importing energy from potentially hostile countries like Venezuela and Tunisia when your next-door neighbor, Pennsylvania, is sitting on enough natural gas to last us for the next 100 years?
As the national Republican Party tries to find a cohesive message to climb out of the electoral wilderness, Christie is going to become more and more appealing to voters across the country. However, before he can run for president, he has to get reelected this year, and he seems to be on track to do that, with an approval rating of 70 percent, according to Quinnipiac University.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, stands little chance of winning, but that may not stop Democrats on the national front from infusing money into her campaign to muddy the waters for the governor. Democrats would love to weaken Christie's chances for president in 2016.
As voters learn more about Christie's environmental and energy records, they're going to find that the Democrat in the race isn't the predetermined choice for the green crowd.
Christie has done a good job of balancing the state's economic priorities and intelligently managing the state's environmental resources. This year, don't be surprised if a lot of greens pull the lever for him again. He's an environmentalist with sanity.