Christie’s RGGI Withdrawal and Coal Prohibition – Sound Policies Based on Sound Science

Governor Chris Christie’s decisions that New Jersey will withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and prohibit the construction of new coal fired power plants constitute the quintessence of environmental policy based on sound science.  These are actions that will enhance the quality of life in New Jersey, both environmentally and economically. 


Most importantly, Governor Christie’s decisions on the climate change issue represent a triumph of environmental policy and science over politics and political ideology.  He knew these actions would incur the wrath of both climate change skeptics on the right and ideologues on the left who will mindlessly embrace every big government climate change measure, regardless of how ineffective or counter-productive it may be.  Yet the Governor, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, and Board of Public Utilities President Lee Solomon acted with courage and wisdom on this critical public policy issue.


I am authoring this column from two rather unique perspectives.


First, I am a former administrator of Region 2, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who believes that anthropomorphic climate change is real.  “Anthropomorphic climate change” is defined as changes in the climate that can be attributed to human activity, rather than other cyclical natural phenomena.


Second, as an environmental policy maker, I always strongly advocated effective cap-and trade programs, such as the EPA Acid Rain Program to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.  While these two pollutants certainly migrate from their sources, mostly coal fired power plants, they only travel certain defined distances, however lengthy, within the continental United States.  Thus, their health and environmental impacts are definitely localized within certain U.S. areas.  Accordingly, the reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide generated by the cap and trade features of the Acid Rain Program have resulted in a marked improvement in health and the environment throughout the eastern United States of America, including New Jersey.


By contrast, greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide, are much different from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in terms of distances traveled and impacts.  Greenhouse gases do not stay localized but rather disperse immediately throughout the atmosphere, becoming part of the global pool.  There is no local impact on climate from local emissions of greenhouse gases.  Carbon dioxide emissions in New Jersey have no greater impact on the climate of New Jersey than they do anywhere else in the world, including China, for example.


Accordingly, the taxes paid by power plant owners in New Jersey under RGGI have increased the cost of energy in the Garden State, and the RGGI cap and trade feature has had no impact whatsoever on New Jersey’s climate.  At the same time, the RGGI taxes are having a negative economic impact on New Jersey.


Energy costs in New Jersey are seventy per cent above the national average.  This is resulting in companies leaving the state, thereby hindering job growth.  These prohibitive energy costs are further increased by the RGGI taxes.


A prime example of the deleterious economic impact of New Jersey’s high energy costs and the RGGI taxes in particular can be found in the recent decision of Ocean Spray to move its longtime manufacturing plant from Bordentown City in Burlington County to Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.  Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington), hardly a conservative ideologue, stated, “The RGGI tax is one of the large reasons why Ocean Spray is leaving.”  She further noted that Pennsylvania does not participate in the RGGI cap-and-trade program.


In short, RGGI is ineffective in enhancing New Jersey’s environment, while harming the state economically.  The question remains:  In view of these scientific and economic factors, what should be the policy of the United States of America and New Jersey regarding global climate change?


The only truly effective solution for the prevention of global warming is for China, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to waive its exemption under the Kyoto Protocol and be bound by its standards.  Otherwise, the United States of America will be putting itself at an economic disadvantage, while China continues to grow its economy and further pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.


Yet this does not mean that until China waives its Kyoto exemption, America should do nothing.  America can unilaterally drastically reduce its greenhouse gas contribution in both the automotive and energy production areas, without damaging our economy, by two courses of action.


First, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by increasing their minimum mileage standards.  The Bush administration and the Congress enacted major increases in these standards in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and the Obama administration has since implemented further increases.


Second, we should move to reduce as much as practicable the number of coal-fired energy production plants in our nation and in their place substitute new natural gas and nuclear energy production plants.   Unless clean coal technology is developed to an extent that emissions of greenhouse gases, soot, smog, and safety risks are virtually eliminated, no new coal fired plants should be permitted.  Natural gas power plants emit far less greenhouse gases and other pollutants than coal-fired plants, and nuclear energy power plants emit virtually no greenhouse gases or other pollutants whatsoever. 


Natural gas is a low cost form of energy, and while nuclear power plants are expensive to construct, their operational cost is low.  Under President George W. Bush, a loan guarantee fund was established in the Department of Energy to finance the construction of nuclear power plants.  The loan guarantees substantially reduce the interest rates and thereby the overall construction costs.  President Obama further increased the guarantee fund. 


The right policy for governors to pursue on climate change is the reduction of coal fired plants in their states.  In this regard, at his press conference on Thursday, May 26, Governor Christie established an example for all other governors to follow.  He announced that New Jersey would no longer accept coal as a new source of power and that his administration would work to shut down older dirtier, peaker and intermediate plants that emit high greenhouse gases.  As alternatives to coal, the Christie administration will look to generate new natural gas production, consider additional nuclear power plants, continue to facilitate renewables (i.e. solar and wind energy production), and promote energy efficiency.


Obviously, there will be continued discussion and debate regarding the specifics of the Governor’s agenda on natural gas, nuclear, and renewables. There can be no doubt, however, that the Governor’s coal prohibition is an historic landmark, not only with regard to climate change but also in terms of New Jersey attempting to finally reach attainment with EPA standards on ozone (smog) and particulate matter (soot). 


As noted by the Sierra Club’s webpage entitled “Stopping the Coal Rush”,, there are currently proposals to build over 100 coal fired plants nationally.   This webpage accurately notes that if these plants are built, “the global warming pollution pumped into our air will make all our other efforts to reverse climate change irrelevant. Coal plants are the dirtiest, most regressive source of energy- poisoning our communities and environment.”  Thanks to Governor Christie, no such new polluting coal plant will be built in New Jersey.


I have little doubt that you will soon see other governors duplicate in their states Governor Christie’s coal prohibition.  In so many areas of state policy, Chris Christie has established a template for other governors to follow.  The Governor has served as a national model in terms of budgetary austerity and pension and health benefit reforms.  Even Democratic Governors like Andrew Cuomo in New York have followed Governor Christie’s lead in establishing property tax caps.  Now with his coal prohibition, Chris Christie has established his leadership in state environmental policy as well, relying on sound science, disregarding the political risks.  As in other areas of state governance, his political courage is serving him well.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.  Christie’s RGGI Withdrawal and Coal Prohibition – Sound Policies Based on Sound Science