Opinion: Environmental progress – and a few key setbacks – in governor’s first year

Murphy announces fracking ban

MICHELE S. BYERS / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – One year ago, Phil Murphy was sworn in as governor. During his campaign, he pledged to restore New Jersey’s national environmental leadership.

The Garden State’s environmental leadership had slipped during the previous administration, with eight years of little action. Our new governor vowed to work toward a greener future, especially in the areas of energy and climate change.

So how is New Jersey’s environment doing?

Overall, it’s been a year of environmental progress for this state we’re in. Here’s a quick tally of key gains and losses:

Clean Energy Advances

A big win for New Jersey was the passage of historic clean energy legislation requiring 50 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2030.  The law set ambitious targets for offshore wind, energy storage and energy efficiency, and established a new community solar program and solar incentives.

Governor Murphy also signed an executive order directing the update of our Energy Master Plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Bid solicitations for the first 1,100 MW of offshore wind, the largest in the nation, just went out to wind developers.

The governor’s commitment to the environment was reflected in his choices to lead the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: Catherine McCabe as commissioner and Debbie Mans as deputy commissioner. Both have strong experience and proven environmental records.

The state also rejoined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program designed to reduce heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and spur investments in clean energy and energy efficiency.  New Jersey was one of the original northeastern states that established RGGI in 2005, but the previous administration withdrew from the program.

Governor Murphy took a strong stand against fracking in the Delaware River Watershed. Fracking, the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract natural gas from the ground, can cause severe environmental impacts, including contamination of water supplies and release of heat-trapping methane.

However, despite these advancements, threats from proposed fossil fuel energy projects, including gas pipelines and gas-fired power plants, would undermine the governor’s plans for a clean energy future and increase our state’s emissions.

And worse, a federal district court in New Jersey granted the PennEast pipeline company eminent domain authority to seize nearly 150 private and preserved lands in Hunterdon and Mercer counties. The State Attorney General is defending state lands against this project. It is critical for the New Jersey to continue to hold PennEast to our state’s strict environmental standards.

Also disheartening, New Jersey Natural Gas began construction on the Southern Reliability Link pipeline in the Pine Barrens, despite legal challenges still pending.

Pine Barrens Protection

The environmentally sensitive Pine Barrens sits atop the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, an underground layer of sand in South Jersey that stores 17 trillion gallons of pure, fresh water and provides the drinking water of about a million New Jersey residents.

The state Pinelands Commission, charged with protecting the region’s water and natural resources, is in dire need of new, conservation-minded commissioners and a new chair who will uphold the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.

Highlands Clean Water

The Highlands region of northern New Jersey supplies drinking water to about 6.2 million people, or more than 70 percent of New Jersey’s population.

Good news for the Highlands came late last year when the Department of Environmental Protection reversed Christie administration rules on septic system density, which would have resulted in more development and degraded water quality.

The NJ Highlands Council also gained new leadership with the appointment of longtime member Carl Richko as chair, and Lisa Plevin, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, as executive director.  Both have strong records of protecting the Highlands water supply and its environmental and cultural resources.

Planning for Coastal Resilience

New Jersey is at ground zero for sea level rise and more extreme storms.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner McCabe launched a comprehensive planning effort to make coastal areas more resilient to the impacts of severe storms and rising seas.

The new Coastal Resilience Plan is intended to protect the property, lives, infrastructure and natural environments by guiding policies, regulations, resources and funding. But to ensure success, the plan must include comprehensive regional planning for development along the coast, and implement natural solutions to combat rising seas and flooding.

Reducing Plastics Pollution

A movement to ban single-use plastic bags in New Jersey is gaining traction.

The movement started locally, with several beach communities banning single-use plastic bags. The state Legislature then proposed a bill to discourage single-use plastic bags with a five-cent fee.

Governor Murphy vetoed the bill, saying it didn’t go far enough. The Legislature is now considering a new bill that, if enacted, would become the strictest in the nation, banning not only single-use plastic bags, but also plastic straws and foam containers.

Plastics harm wildlife and pose threats to human health. Marine mammals and fish often mistake plastic bags for food, and are dying from starvation. And plastics like bags, straws and foam containers break down into tiny fragments known as microplastics, now pervasive in oceans, rivers and even bottled drinking water.

Farmland and Open Space

Passage of the 2018 federal Farm Bill was a win for New Jersey bringing new funding for land conservation programs and boosts to sustainable agriculture programs.

2018 also saw robust state funding for open space, farmland preservation programs and the Blue Acres program, in which the state buys out flood-prone homes and restores the land as parks and natural areas.

However, the most important federal program for public conservation and recreation lands – the Land and Water Conservation Fund – expired at the end of September. Hopefully, the new Congress will take quick action to reinstate this valuable 50-year-old program, which has funded many of the nation’s most iconic parks.

Preserved lands and forests are among our greatest allies in preventing the worse impacts of climate change.

New Jersey has way too many polluted sites in need of cleanup, many of them in the state’s cities. During the past year, the Murphy administration accelerated Natural Resource Damage lawsuits, investigating new reports and filing claims against polluters. The governor also issued an executive order affirming the administration’s commitment to environmental justice and the protection of vulnerable communities in our cities and towns.

While New Jersey’s environmental outlook brightened in 2018, so much more is needed if we are to secure clean air, clean water, open lands and wildlife for all New Jerseyans. Here’s looking forward to a new year in which the Garden State becomes a healthier and more livable place for all.

To learn more about protecting New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website.


Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

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